Segregated Perspective

Several years ago, I was working in a research library on a college campus. My immediate supervisor had beautiful dark chocolate skin. Her supervisor, a black Muslim woman, acted as an outside committee member on my Religious Rhetoric advisory panel. (There’s a joke in there, on my thesis committee… of a Jew, A Muslim and a Methodist walk into a thesis defense on the apocalypse…but I digress)

Beyond that, our faculty and staff consisted of two Hispanic males, several white people, like me, a homosexual male and student workers of all colors and ethnicities and religious backgrounds. I loved that. I loved working with so many different kinds of people. I loved the conversations it produced. I loved bringing huge exhibits together like the one on Women and one on African-Americans at our traditional all-male, all-white University.

Then, came time for my annual review. My supervisor gave me two perfect scores. I don’t remember the first category in which I scored perfectly, but I remember the 2nd, Diversity. Me. A girl so white, I’m practically transparent. I got high marks on Diversity, because I appreciate and love and respect and want toΒ  get to know everyone that came through the library doors. The library director made her change it, downgrading that score to something more in keeping with other employees of my rank and giving me “room for improvement.”

My supervisor was so incensed that she wrote a letter that detailed how much I cared and did and went beyond for people, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, background, clothing, sexual orientation, religion, or any other category we humans place on each other. I kept a copy of that letter because it meant so much to me that she would write it and because I had never consciously thought about my approach to diversity. It was just something I did.

My perspective on the matter was singular. I had never intentionally set out to embrace diversity, I just loved people. I have never tried to bring “tolerance” into the workplace, I just wanted to talk.

A few weeks ago, on Michael Perkins’ blog, I won a copy of Church Diversity, by Scott Williams, subtitled “Sunday: The most segregated day of the week.” I’m going to be blogging this book, because I’m at a loss to explain why my church is mostly people who look like me (though, to be fair, some have tans). I can’t explain how to make my local church look like the kingdom of heaven, or even my community, for that matter. I do not possess words that would cover why the message of Jesus is filtered by skin color throughout churches in America.

I don’t have anything profound for today, I’ve just started the book, but I want to know what you think. Why is it that 40+ years after Dr. Martin Luther King called Sunday School the “most segregated school in America,” we still choose to separate ourselves like oil and vinegar on Sunday mornings?

Williams says in the book that it’s about PERSPECTIVE. If we change our perspective, we can change the game. We have to be honest about our perspective, first.

What does your local church look like in terms of diversity? I don’t just mean color, what does it look like with regard to age, politics, family background, socio-economic status and education?


35 responses to “Segregated Perspective

  1. Wow, how about this timing. I won the book from Pete Wilson’s blog and I’m almost finished. I’m really interested in hearing your perspective. I’m struggling with it myself. Not because it’s not an important message, it just what he’s saying about it. I think he’s hitting on a symptom, rather than the root of the problem. I touched on what I think is the root of the problem on my blog today.

    It’s funny because I typically considered my church to be primarily white. But reading the book has me thinking about diversity. Yesterday I was in church and I saw a sea of Brazilian faces, a few Asians and a good number of black couples. I’m not sure why I thought my church wasn’t as mixed as some others but when I looked today I realized that it really is a great mix.

    I’m a big proponent of seeing every tongue and nation worshipping together. But I don’t think it’s something you can force. You can’t take affirmative action in how you hire staff for your church (I don’t think anybody should be “hired” in the church, but that’s a different topic in and of itself). Having a token black or Hispanic pastor isn’t going to bring diversity to your church.

    Gah, I have a lot to say on this subject but I’ll refrain from writing a blog post in your comments! πŸ™‚

    • I’m getting the “symptom” not the “source” vibe, too. Some of the nicest people I knew in church growing up would sit around their living rooms using racial slurs on Sunday afternoons. I think the reticence of the church to call out racism has been at least a contributing factor, in my experience.

      I don’t want to force diversity, then it’s simulation and not true corporate worship. I do want to know what’s at the root of the problem and why our churches don’t look like every other aspect of our society in terms of diversity.

  2. I can’t speak for my church, because I’m still in the process of finding one, but I love the diversity in the Ignite Monmouth group. A few years back, we were all extremely white. Now, we are growing to an even mix of white, African American and Hispanic. We have straight and gay, men and women, traditional and contemporary, young and one old guy who shows up randomly and creeps the students out (oh wait, that’s me!), those bapitized in the spirit and those who have never heard of it before, rich and poor, whole and broken families, popular and outcasts.

    I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  3. In 2000, my church set goals (called Vision 2000) and one of them was to pursue having a diverse church. I am pleased to say that I worship alongside people of many colors. We have a long way to go, but we are certainly much, much more diverse than any other church in our city. What is particularly of note about our church is that it is over 100 years old, Christian Reformed, and over half our congregation is over the age of 55.
    The thing about diversity in a church is that is doesn’t just happen. Being a diverse church takes constant work. We need to re-examine ourselves all the time and ask if we are serving everyone. We have to be open to criticism and change.The patterns of worship, the style of worship, and even the meaning of worship are instilled in many of us from a very young age from traditions that are decades and even hundreds of years old. Diversity begins with everyone moving out of their comfort zones. It has to be intentional. When many of the downtown churches moved to the ‘burbs to build newer buildings without leaky roofs, we stayed in the city, repaired our roof, and began programs for the neighborhood youth. Our church has an anthem choir and a gospel choir. We have 80 year-olds who embrace drums being played and children who appreciate the beauty of organ music. We have worshipers who sit quietly in their seats and others who feel moved to stand with their hands uplifted and both kinds are accepted and loved.
    I feel really blessed that my children attend a church with children of many colors and hope that our church continues on this path.

    • I’m glad my children are growing up in the church they are, too. Even though it’s mostly white, the diversity of opinion and income and culture and religious background is astounding and leads to great conversation!

  4. We are mostly Hispanic…as far as diverse….our main service is in Spanish…but all the “classes” for kids are mostly English….mostly middle class peeps….mexicans and mexican decents…

    We are a spanish cultural church…so I don’t know if that counts….white people wouldn’t understand…and I don’t think we do intetionally….

    • what about it do you think white people wouldn’t understand? I’m just curious, because even though I don’t speak Spanish, the Hispanic culture is definitely familiar to me as a South Texan

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience, Kristin. Means a lot.

    My family is a diverse mix, so diversity at its core is important to me and my wife. I like what you said about simply loving people. That is where it’s at.

    The church I go to is fairly diverse for the area of town we’re in. The area we live in is pretty transient so it is becoming more diverse color-wise – a lot of poliitcal, cultural, and educational diversity.

    • I remembered your post on the subject, and I think that’s what started my thoughts on this… why don’t we make the point to share other cultures with our children, and if we can do it with our children, why not our church?

  6. I brag on my church all the time. If you walked into City of Refuge during worship, you might wonder what so many black people are doing in a white church, but if you come in during prayer, intercession, sermon, baptism, or anywhere else, you’d wonder what so many white people are doing in a black church.

    We’re located in New Orleans, a city with such a sordid racial past that we’ve had slavery, free blacks forming their own militia to defend the city against Union forces (rejected by the Confederate government, they swapped sides when the yanks came in), quadroon balls (like a debutante ball but with girls who were mostly white), and worse.

    What’s made the difference in our church is an active effort to reach out to anyone. It’s not a perfect system, but the pastor and his family are black, the associate pastor and his family are white, and the rest of us have just been adopted along the way, regardless of race. I believe a big part of it is never settling into a “this is the only way we do church” mindset, which is part of what separates the black churches from the white ones, so there’s a diversity in our service, but also in our message. I’ve heard plenty of things preached that are often heard in black churches but never in white churches (and vice versa) and plenty of other things preached that I’ve never heard in ANY church.

    Bottom line? Follow the Holy Spirit, I suppose.

    • That’s the answer. The Holy Spirit brings believers together. If we’re following the Spirit, longing after the same God, worshiping the same Son, how are we going to be separated by race?

      • More importantly, how are we going to be separated by worship style? For the most part, we’ve gotten past race, it’s just a cultural divide now. And to be honest, I can’t sit through the average white church without checking my phone and hoping someone has texted me since church, as unlikely as that might be.

  7. It’s not just our churches that are segregated. Our neighborhoods and schools are mostly segregated as well. It was true in Houston and it’s certainly true here in Austin.

    • My neighborhood is really diverse, but I know what you mean… it’s not diverse everywhere, and since neighborhoods typically have neighborhood schools, the schools get to be that way, too!

  8. This has interesting missiological implications. Are we segregated because we don’t feel comfortable with each other or are we segregated because at its very heart the Gospel of Christ needs to be spoken in a cultural way?

    When we started the Spanish language ministry in our church the #1 concern of the Spanish speakers was that they get a sermon from their own pastor and not a Spanish translation of the white guys message. Why?

    Because the issues the middle class 40 year old white guy understood and could speak to were not the ones they felt they could relate to.

    They go upstairs and Jose, a fantastic preacher teaches them. We stay downstairs and Toby, a fantastic teacher teaches us. It’s not because the white folks wanted it that way.

    Our kids intermingle though, because their issues are more the same and their culture is more the same. And when they are adults I hope (because lots of the white kids there go to Spanish immersion school and have great language skills) that some of “our” kids will sit upstairs in service with Jose and some of “their” kids will sit downstairs in service with Toby.

    And that is just two cultures trying to bless each other and grow together.

    Could a truly multicultural church with everyone represented really meet the needs of everyone there? (I think it could, but then, I’m in the majority so I don’t truly know what the other needs are.)

    I can’t wait to hear the rest of your series!


    • I think one of the points that Williams is making in the book is that the Early Church was multicultural, since the ministry of Paul and other apostles spread over the known world. There are so many cultures just in Israel and the incubator of early Christianity that the Early Church was most definitely a diverse church. It’s not about meeting the needs of a congregation as much as equipping the congregation to take the word to the world

  9. My church consisits mostly of caucasians, however that is because the community is primarily made up of whites. I remember being told way back in high school that this city used to be (way back in the old days) for whites only. That sickens me. However, we have a university here that is primarily French, and therefore we get a lot of students from other French speaking countries (like in Africa). We have slowly become more diverse and now you will see blacks, asians, and other ethnicities represented. We have become more diverse these last many years. So, in our church, there have been (and still are) some African Canadians, South Korean, East Indians. This is one thing our pastor (who just left us as he was called to pastor his home church in Hawaii) was trying to do with the church – make us more diverse.

    With regard to other segregations, there are very few singles (who aren’t in university). There seems to be Sunday school classes, small groups, etc. geared towards parents and married couples. That is annoying for us singles, particularly those of us in our 30s and 40s…even though there aren’t many of us. It’s almost like we don’t get accepted into things and are never asked to join any fun times they do (like having a ladies only spa day where they gather at someone’s house and do facials, manicures, pedicures and just chat and have fun)…like because we aren’t married or have kids, we are never included. Personally, I don’t feel called to create anything for singles, and really, those of us who are single have gathered to do bible studies or whatnot and they never last…there just aren’t that many of us, and I don’t know if people just think we don’t need to belong to the rest of the church, even though we aren’t married or have kids.

    • We have very few singles in our church, or, maybe we have more, but we don’t congregate as a group. I think churches who are ministering only to families are missing a huge opportunity to present a Gospel for Everyone. Welcoming every single (hehe) person who walks through the door and making them feel like a part of the family of God is the best way to grow, not just a local congregation, but the Kingdom

  10. I congregate in a small church in Brooklyn. 90% of the congregation is Hispanic because we live in a Hispanic community. Culture weighs heavily in everything that is said and done. Church is obviously open and available to all races and colors. Now I wonder if a white person walks into our church made up of 90% Latinos, would they stick around? Will the culture frighten them? I don’t know the answer. Perhaps I should ask.

    I’m interested to see your perspective on the book.

    • I do wonder. I know I would probably feel like I stuck out if I were black in my congregation, but it’s an endless cycle until someone starts not caring about skin color or culture in order to blend the color lines a bit.

  11. This book sounds like it’s right up my alley. I’ll be very interested to hear more of your thoughts. In looking at how you embrace diversity, I wonder if the way you were raised had anything to do with it? There are bigger root issues at the base of any segregation, prejudice, stereotypes, etc. and often, but not always, this can be traced back to those subtle messages we pick up on during childhood. I was raised to accept everyone as they were, except maybe for liberals and gay people (this was distilled to hate the sin and love the sinner). College was my chance to expand those particular horizons.

    My current church is not diverse at all, which may be one of the reasons I haven’t settled in. Primarily white, primarily young families, primarily wealthy (what the heck am I doing there?), few non-marrieds, primarily college or graduate level education and white collar jobs, primarily conservative. The pastors do a good job of challenging boundaries and accepted way of doing things but I wonder if the lack of diversity means we’re still missing the point and missing out on opportunities as a body.

    • honestly, I wasn’t raised to embrace diversity. That’s nothing bad on my parents, but I knew very well that dating someone outside my race was not an option, that my friends had to be church goers, and more specifically, the kind who didn’t drink, liberals were suspect. My poor family!

      My church is equally mixed liberal and conservative. I can find those with whom I agree and those with whom I can at least respectfully disagree, which was not the case in the church in which I grew up. My being a liberal, I think, makes them consign me to a “not cut out for leadership” status.

    • Your family sounds remarkably similar to mine. My parents are both college professors, and somehow always managed to “adopt” one or two students every year. Usually, they were international students who were a long way from home and having problems adjusting to American culture. My parents would invite them over for dinner, let them pet the horses, and just generally take them under their wing for a semester or so. Needless to say, it was hard to grow up with many prejudices in a household like that. πŸ™‚

  12. I probably would have said that my church isn’t diverse, but once I started thinking about it, it really is. At least for a small church in a small town in Tennessee. Most people look like me (except, like you, most have a tan compared to me), but there is some diversity.

    Besides skin color, there are just very different types of people. One of my closest friends at church used to be into witchcraft and she is married to a man ten years younger than she is (he’s my age and she’s in her early forties). It took some people awhile to get used to that one. There are old people, young people and everything in between. The one thing we don’t have is single parents. I’m the only single mom at the church and one of only two single people between the ages of 18 and 60. And now that I think about it, I think I’m the only divorced person in my church also. Hmmm… no wonder I hang out with the ex-witch, I don’t fit in with anyone else. πŸ™‚

    • I’m glad you have founded a relationship in your church, and I’m glad we misfit Christians stick together. (shouldn’t all Christians embrace the term “misfit?”

  13. Pingback: Contests, Submissions, and Winners, Oh My | Leanne Shirtliffe ~ Ironic Mom

  14. Interesting post! I didn’t set out to address the parallel topic know as “unity” but have been lead to it and Psalm 133:1 – Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.

    • I just read a great post about unity versus uniformity and will try to link it back here. Unity in purpose (sharing our love of Christ with the world) is necessary, uniformity is unnatural.

  15. My church is pretty dang diverse, that’s one of the reasons I love it! Off the top of my head, I can think of a former drug dealer, a former exotic dancer (who, by the way, gave a great performance at last year’s talent show!), and quite a few kids from the “poor” side of town who attend our services (the youth leader drives a van and picks ’em up every week).

    The only dynamic we seem to be missing is the “bitter little old church lady” group. Hmmmmmm…maybe we should do something about that. πŸ™‚

    • don’t specifically go after the bitter little old church lady demographic, unless it’s to convert them to “sweet little old church ladies”

      I both do and do not want to know what the former exotic dancer did for the talent show. Torn

  16. Really appreciate this post, Herdy. Cultural/Racial equality is something I strongly advocate for. My current church is not culturally diverse, and I would say that it’s a mostly white, 30’s to 60’s crowd of (mostly) conservatives. Our previous church was the exact opposite – and I would say we were the minority, racially.

    • I know some of it is denominational difference, but there is a culturally black church across the street from our church, and I just wondered… why? Thanks for your perspective, Falls.

  17. Kristin,
    I have had my eye on this book for a while. I would love to read it when you are done. Looking forward to your blogs on the book.

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