A Church of Many Colors: Here’s How Churches Are Slowly Becoming Less Segregated

Inspired by the principle of racial reconciliation, congregations like Peoples Church in Cincinnati are dedicated to becoming more diverse. Photo Robert Libetti/WSJ
Inspired by the principle of racial reconciliation, congregations like Peoples Church in Cincinnati are dedicated to becoming more diverse. Photo Robert Libetti/WSJ

Pastors Seeking Racially Diverse Congregations Cope With Culture Clashes; Should Children Be Shushed?

As voices and music swelled on a recent Sunday morning, bringing a traditional 19th-century hymn to an arena-rock crescendo, hands of all hues reached toward the heavens.

“This is beautiful,” said pastor Chris Beard, looking over pews filled with African-American, white and Asian worshipers in a church service that opened with a prayer for two dozen Ethiopian babies and closed with a benediction in Korean. “To be one church family pleases the heart of the Lord.”

The faces were nearly all white in 2001, when Mr. Beard took charge of the century-old First Christian Assembly of God. Today, half its members are white and a quarter are black; 30 nationalities make up the rest.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that Sunday at 11 a.m. was the most segregated hour in America. Today, pastors like Mr. Beard are working to change that, with some success. The proportion of churches in the U.S. with mixed-race congregations—where no single group tops 80%—has grown from 7% in 1998 to 13% in 2012, according to an analysis of the National Congregations Study, a survey run by Duke University.

“I just began to wonder about our being so mono-ethnic in a multiethnic city,” said Mr. Beard, the senior pastor of what is now called Peoples Church in Cincinnati. “If the church is segregated, no wonder the city is segregated.”

Pastors who seek more diverse congregations—whether motivated by theology or changing neighborhoods—quickly discover that such diversity is easy to conceive but hard to execute. They report clashes over politics, musical tastes, whether children should be shushed during services, how best to talk about race and even how to address pastors.

In Cincinnati, one man said when Mr. Beard began work, “We were all under the same roof, but we weren’t mixing.” One Sunday, the pastor asked people to sit with someone they didn’t know, preferably of a different race. With that, a white member said she met a black woman who became one of her closest friends.

Theology pushed Mark DeYmaz while he served as youth pastor of a 5,000-member nearly all-white, suburban megachurch outside Little Rock, Ark. In search of diversity, he left in 2001 to start his own multiethnic congregation. He said he was directed by a passage in the New Testament’s book of Revelation—Chapter 7, verses 9-10—that describes how “every nation, tribe, people and tongue” will stand before the throne of God.

“If the kingdom of heaven isn’t segregated then why on earth is the church segregated?” said Mr. DeYmaz, who is white.

He now directs the Mosaix Global Network, a nonprofit group that helps churches seeking to integrate. A common complaint from white members, Mr. DeYmaz said, is that churches do too much to accommodate the preferences of black members. African-Americans, meanwhile, say white members of their church don’t understand their point of view.

Jaddie Edwards, a black member of the Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, recalled a white woman in a Bible study group asking, “Why do we need to talk about race?”

Mrs. Edwards said she explained ways race affects her life. She never puts her hands in her pockets or her purse while shopping, for instance, because she worries someone might think she was stealing. “I didn’t make the rules,” she told the group. “This is reality for me.”

Outside Grand Rapids, Mich., the once-all-white Kentwood Community Church began diversifying about 15 years ago. During a men’s group meeting this spring, one white man confessed he had grown distant from his daughter after she started dating a black student.

Listening was Eddie Ward, who is black. “Everybody won’t be that honest,” he recalled thinking. Mr. Ward hugged the man as the group prayed.

When race and politics collide—as in Ferguson, Mo., this summer following the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer—multiracial churches often tread a narrow path, hoping to offend no one.

Often pastors divorce themselves from politics altogether, or stick with bipartisan causes, a major change for many churches. White evangelical congregations have long served as a rallying spot for Republicans, just as African-American churches have for Democrats.

Efrem Smith, a black pastor, said he would have preached freely about the importance of Barack Obama ’s candidacy if he had been at a predominantly black church during the 2008 presidential election. But as pastor of a multiracial church in Minneapolis. he discouraged members from wearing Obama T-shirts to services. “Politics unfortunately is something that tends to divide the races,” he said, “not unite them.”

Chris Williamson, who is black, grew up in a black church and imagined that someday he, too, would lead one. Instead, in 1995, he founded Strong Tower Bible Church, a multiracial congregation in Franklin, Tenn., outside Nashville. Mr. Williamson said he discovered how easily some members were rattled when he talked about race.

After black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Florida in 2012,  Mr. Williamson, whose own son was about the same age, was shaken. He wrote a sermon on the killing, he said, but decided not to deliver it. Some parishioners got upset nonetheless when he discussed the case on his Facebook page.

“Some will say, ‘He’s not black enough,’ or they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s too black,’ ” Mr. Williamson said of church members and other black pastors. “As a practitioner of racial reconciliation, after nearly two decades, it’s lonely. It’s lonely.”

After the Ferguson shooting, Mr. Williamson addressed the matter from the pulpit—softening the racial tensions by urging compassion for the mother of Michael Brown, the victim, as well as the mother of the police officer who killed him.

Consultants who advise churches in transition say most conflicts arise not from welcoming people of different races. Rather, resentments surface when these new groups ask for a stronger voice in how the church is run.

Pastor Beau Hughes, who is white, started transforming the all-white Village Church in Denton, Texas, in 2007. The church initiated a musical diversity month, he said, and members thought “it’s kind of neat” to try something new.

“But what if that is more than just a once a month thing or once a year thing, but year-round thing?” he said. Now, he said, his church is 21% minority, and some white members complain the music—which has added gospel and jazz overtones to its Christian pop-rock mix—is too black.

Raleigh Washington, an African-American pastor who has helped lead multiracial churches in Columbus, Ohio, and other cities, set up meetings to help his congregations sort through such tensions. First, he said, he gathered black members, “our chocolate meeting,” and then met with white members, the “vanilla meeting.” The groups would later join in a “fudge-ripple meeting” to work on issues together, he said.

Over and over, Mr. Washington said, African-Americans would complain about white members calling him by his first name. “ ‘You don’t respect our pastor. His first name is ‘Pastor,’ ” Mr. Washington recalled people saying.

Black members also would complain that white parents let their children run around during services, he said. White parents, meanwhile, didn’t like how some black parents would tell their children to “shut up” during worship.

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SOURCE: WSJ – Laura Meckler