Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Still "the most segregated hour in America"

I recently read I Shall Not Be Moved: Racial Separation in Christian Worship by Terriel Byrd. Dr. Byrd is formerly pastor of an inner-city church in Cincinnati and is currently director of Urban Ministries Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University. I've known and admired him from a distance, having heard him preach several times. I take the title of Byrd's book to be an ironic twist on the old civil rights song -- in this case, it's from their comfortable pews that white and black worshipers "shall not be moved". It's a provocative little book. Byrd attempts to answer the question of how and why -- even after the incredible gains of the civil rights movement -- that in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is still America's most segregated hour, and the Sunday school is the most segregated school of the week."

He compellingly lays out the history of racial separation in the American Church starting from colonial times. I was surprised to learn that early on in the colonies it was common for blacks and whites to worship together. It was only as slavery became entrenched that a distinct "white church" and "black church" arose. Byrd writes:

Slavery, it's shameful facts, its historical, social and economic inequalities, its damaging impact on the souls and on the psyches of black people, gave birth to the independent black church. Each of these influences was a dominant factor in the rise of sustained institutionalized separate worship communities.

It's a shameful fact that many of our denominational histories can be traced back to the evil of slavery. Yet the separation by and large continues, and as Byrd points out, most Christians have come to accept it as the norm. In the chapter Sacred, Secular or Merely Sinful, he makes the argument that it's not normal and in fact is a scandal on the church's witness to the world.

Unless the epochal distinction of black Christian and white Christian is buried, and with it the racial strife that has permeated the history of the Church in America, the light of Christ's life and the suffering of His cross will continue to be obscured, buried with each service that is gathered in his name. To do anything less would be neither sacred, nor secular; it would be, merely sinful.

One of the most interesting parts was his recounting of a classroom project where he sent students on "field trips" to worship services outside their own racial context. The experiences were overwhelmingly positive, yet none of the students seriously considered making it a regular practice. Last year when my wife and I were looking for a new church home, we worshiped several times at a local church where we were virtually the only white people in attendance. We were welcomed with open arms and loved the service, yet like those students, never seriously considered joining that church. Perhaps it just seemed like too radical and strange a thing to do for a young, white couple to join a predominantly African-American church. But maybe it's going to take radical forays outside our comfort zones to break down barriers too long left unchallenged.

If I have one criticism of Byrd's book, it's that it lacks many concrete recommendations for overcoming this separation in worship. Perhaps that will be coming in a future book. In fact, he seems to pull back a bit from earlier assertions when he writes in the last chapter:

My work, however, neither expects nor recommends nor thinks it possible or feasible to eradicate the black church or the white church.

Why not? I ask. It's probably not possible to do in a generation (or even two), but might we not take intentional actions toward that end? Byrd quotes L. Venchal Booth, founder of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, "the white church needs to become more black and the black church needs to become more white. That's the simple way to put it." Indeed! May this excellent book start many conversations on how we do that.

1 comment:

Christopher Chillingworth said...

Excellent article Stephen. I have the great fortune to be a student of Dr. Byrd this semester. Couldn't agree more with your one bit of criticism, but I have an observation. Generally people change churches when circumstances change, such as relocation to a new area, or a falling out with their old church. If a young family is happy with their church and has developed good relationships there, what incentive is there to go to another church regardless of the race of the family or of the new church? I think that perhaps a more practical solution is that it becomes a common practice to belong to a church but to visit other churches and worship with other congregations from time to time. Also things like church softball leagues, and greater community partnerships might have an excellent effect.