"The most segregated hour ..."

hands 01Every serious student of recent American history and religion knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote about racial segregation and Christian churches. But few surely know the ways in which little has changed from King's day. They would do well to read a CNN article on the subject. Reporter John Blake's story was one of unusual power and honesty. Rare is the mainstream newspaper article that tells uncomfortable truths about both black and white Christians. This is one of those stories. Consider Blake's lede:

The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.

They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church's newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of "them" tried to join their church?

"One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover," says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.

The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church's newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.

Later in the story, Blake elaborated on the reasons for the racial segregation. He summarized the views of the pastor of one inter-racial church this way:

Woo doesn't say his church has resolved all of its racial tensions. There are spats over music, length of service, even how to address Woo. Blacks prefer to address him more formally, while whites prefer to call him by his first name, (a sign of disrespect in black church culture), Woo says.

The second sentence in this passage hit home with me. My Catholic parish technically is almost all black. I go there for confession and for morning Mass; I revere the pastor, a priest of uncommon holiness and charity. Yet I don't take my wife and daughter there because the Mass is too long. Our 14-month-old can barely tolerates a 60-minute Mass (at the heavily white parishes), let alone a 150-minute one.

These long services survive regardless of the pastor. The lesson is clear: the black congregants prefer long services. Yet it is also clear why few black Catholics attend the local white Catholic churches. Every third or fourth sermon is a variation on the Jesus-loves-you theme. Whether this message would resonate with local working- and middle-class blacks is doubtful.

Perhaps I digress. Regardless, Blake's story also showed a firm grasp of the New Testament and Christian theology. Besides the impressive conclusion, Blake summarized the theology of inter-racial parishes this way:

interracial church advocates say the church was never meant to be segregated. They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew -- it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another, they say.

DeYoung, the "United by Faith" co-author, says the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive. He says the church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world.

"People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women - the huge divides of that time period -- could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion," DeYoung says.

The passage above was not perfect. A brief passage examining whether segregation is itso facto bad would have been great. Catholic parishes were, and to an extent still are, segregated by ethnicity. Is it un-Christian that Hispanic Catholics have their church, while Irish and Italian Catholics have theirs?

But those are quibbles. Blake's story did more than Get Religion. It is one of the best newspaper stories I have read this year.

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