Must Churches Provide a Space Where People Are Free to Be Themselves?

Bilingual Sunday morning service at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Jan. 13, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow.
Bilingual Sunday morning service at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Jan. 13, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow.

Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”

On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.

This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshipers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.

As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job and education can’t overcome.

Recent violence against women revealed a similar safety problem. Many women flinch whenever a man draws near and feel demeaned on a daily basis by sexist behaviors at work. Abuse stories are common.

People need safe places, and church has provided that safety to many. In church, a young black male can play drums with the choir, serve as an usher, hang out with friends and feel loved and accepted without any need to avoid eye contact with whites.

Years ago, after a horrible time in a congregation, a friend took me to a black church. He wanted me to rediscover safety inside church doors. There, among the marginalized, I was treated with dignity and respect and felt safe inside a church for the first time in years.

I have wondered why female clergy tend to hire female staff, to select female leaders and to emphasize female needs. Was this the “sisterhood” taking over? Turning the tables on patriarchy?

No, I think it’s part of providing a place where women can feel safe. Not just in charge, but actually safe: free to be themselves, not needing to please men or to fear men, free to imagine God as more than patriarch.

A similar search for safety has led gays to seek out gay-affirming congregations where they can be fully themselves. Some churches are entirely oriented to gay constituents.

Young church folks tend to avoid congregations led by the elderly, because they want to avoid the glares and heavy-handed control battles common in older churches.

Because safety matters so much, established congregations have an even larger dilemma than grappling with financial stress and declining numbers. They need to be safe places first.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service – Tom Ehrich

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