NYT Reporter Reflects On How his Story About Black Christians Leaving White Evangelical Megachurches Came to Be

The Gateway Church in the Dallas-Forth Worth area is one of the largest churches in the country. (Credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times)
The Gateway Church in the Dallas-Forth Worth area is one of the largest churches in the country. (Credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times)

I grew up in a little Baptist church in small-town Alabama. The Baptist part is inherited, like baldness or dimples: Both of my grandfathers and three of my uncles were Baptist preachers, and my parents met as graduate students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Genes aside, the church — plastic chairs, pilling carpet and grape juice for communion — was the organizing institution of my childhood, where I met my closest friends and most of the significant adults in my life.

Church attendance has been in generational decline. I began calling around, exploring whether people in small towns were looking for community elsewhere and, with the white nationalist rallies so often in the news, whether young white people were looking for meaning in the grim sanctuaries of the alt-right.

But I kept hearing about something different. Pastors, theologians and sociologists were talking of how black worshipers were leaving white-majority churches. They were leaving quietly and not en masse, a family here, a single person there. But it was happening everywhere, a movement large enough for some to see the unraveling of decades of efforts at racial reconciliation.

I would find someone on Facebook, a black worshiper who had posted about leaving her mostly white church, and then I would find someone in the same situation halfway across the country. They would both think they were going through this alone, yet the accounts would be remarkably similar, the timelines nearly identical, even some of the words and phrases the same. There had been, I discovered, some sharp reporting about this, particularly from the writer Deborah Jian Lee, but not as much as you would expect for an experience that seemed to be this broadly shared.

People spoke to me of being tired, let down, heartbroken. Political and cultural partitions that they had long overlooked at worship time now overshadowed every service. The realizations almost always began with the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and a sense that white church leaders or fellow worshipers did not want to talk about how a black teenager walking home from a 7-Eleven could end up dead. Sometimes the preacher would privately express sympathy, but also concern about how his white congregation would take it. Maybe there would be a meeting.

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SOURCE: CAMPBELL ROBERTSON 
The New York Times