Crossing the Racial Divide

Practical steps to becoming more racially diverse

The passing of Coretta Scott King provides an impetus for me to speak to the issue of racial diversity in churches.

Josh Hunt in front of Martin Luther King's Atlanta home church

Let me start with a few assumptions. If you don't agree with these assumptions, you might not want to read the rest of the article.

  • God loves all people equally.
  • We should love all people equally.
  • Churches are still among the most racially segregated organizations on the planet.
  • We are all a little more prejudice than we realize.
  • We all ought to work toward racial diversity in our churches.

Becoming racially diverse is not only right, it is also smart. I was in a church recently that is in a small town in East Texas. My host told me that although the population has stayed more or less static over the last fifty years, the racial mix has changed dramatically from being nearly all white to being about half Hispanic. There are many city settings that have changed much more rapidly. We either learn to reach the people in our community--bloom where we are planted--or we find ourselves dying on the vine.

Here are a few practical suggestions about crossing the racial divide.

Suggestion #1: Get in touch with your own prejudice.

Notice I did not say, "Get rid of all prejudice" or "Make sure you are not prejudice." We are all prejudice to some degree. We need to get in touch with it, deal with it, repent of it and ask God to change our hearts.

I remember getting a chicken sandwich at a Burger King in the Atlanta airport. There were several available cashier's and I quite unconsciously made a choice to get in one particular line. I overheard the cashier that I had not chosen turn to the one that I did choose and say, "That always happens to me." That statement jarred me out of my coma and I noticed consciously what I had apparently noticed only sub-consciously. Both cashiers were black but one had a darker skin pigmentation. The other was a little thinner, and I think most people would evaluate her as being prettier. Unconsciously I had chosen her over the lady next to her. Apparently, this happens all day long.

I winced to think of how my below-the-the-level of consciousness choice had hurt her. There was nothing I could do at this point. The damage was done. But, it was a lesson for me on racial sensitivity. I have made a point to be a little less color blind.

In fact, I try to go the other way. My thinking is this. Black people in particular have been greatly mistreated in this country, and continue to live in a very different world than whites. I try to level the playing field ever so slightly by being a little more kind, a little more friendly, a little more inclusive than might come naturally. I figure plenty will be extra mean to them; I want to be extra nice.

I am aware that I struggle with my own brand of prejudice and am praying a prayer just now as I right this that God would help me root that out. And I know I am not alone. I have had more than one host, when they find I am from New Mexico say in an only slightly condescending tone, "Ya'll have a lot of Mexicans in your area?" Before they stick their foot any farther in their mouth, I quickly say, "Yes, as a matter of fact, my wife is half Hispanic. My father-in-law is Hispanic." It is surprising how quickly the tone changes. I am not judging them. My point is, it is true of all of us.

Suggestion #2: the first pickle out of the pickle jar is the most difficult 

Becoming a racially diverse church is a little like getting pickles out of a pickle jar--the first one is always the most difficult. I would do everything I could to persuade people of  a differing ethnicity to join my church. I would tell them of my dream of our church being more ethnically diverse, and ask them to help me. I would tell them of my sorrow of us not being more inclusive and promise them that if they would be willing to work with me, I would be doing everything in my power to make this a friendly, welcoming place for all people.

Suggestion #3: Over-represent

Once I got some people of a differing ethnicity to join me, I would do what I could to communicate in very public ways that they are welcome here. If they are musical, I might ask them to sing. If they don't mind doing so, I might ask them to be an usher, or take up the offering or come to the stage and offer a prayer. Anything I could do to very publicly say, "These people are welcome here. I am glad they are here." I would do so. Obviously, I don't want to embarrass them or "use" them for my cause. I would seek to be sensitive to their feelings as individuals. But, within the bounds of their comfort zone, I would seek to over-represent them in public positions.

Suggestion #4: Leadership

The real test of an ethnically diverse church is around leadership. It is one thing to allow people to attend, or even have them serve in various positions. It is quite another to invite them into the top tier of leadership. I live in an area that is around 55% Hispanic. If I were looking for a staff member, I would be slightly preferential to a Hispanic candidate. Obviously, you wouldn't hire an otherwise unqualified person just because they are of the right race. But, if I could find a qualified candidate--and I would look--I would give the nod to a Hispanic candidate. I would seek to have our deacons ethnically diverse, our Sunday School teachers ethnically diverse, and every level of leadership ethnically diverse.

Suggestion #5: Think through the goal

There is an assumption in all this discussion that the goal of every church would be to match the ethnic diversity of its neighborhood. We assume that if a church is in a neighborhood that is 25% Anglo, 25% Black, 25% Hispanic and 25% Asian, that they church should be 25%/25%/25%/25%. This may be the ideal, but I would want to think through this a little bit more than I have.

I had a conversation about this recently with a black, Christian shuttle driver. I first posed the question if he thought racial diversity in churches would be the ideal. He agreed that it would. "But," I probed more deeply many black people seem to enjoy a much more energetic, animated, lively service than do white people. Many (although not all--Brooklyn Tabernacle would be a notable exception) predominately black churches have a distinctive black style. And this style comes, not so much from what happens on the stage, but from the people themselves. Let's suppose, for example, that you were in an area that was 33% black. If you went to a racially diverse church that matched the community, it would be 33% black. It may not have the energy, enthusiasm, and animation that comes from a predominately black crowd. In this sense, it would seem to me, you, as a black man, might actually not like it as well."

We didn't come to a conclusion on this, and I don't have all the answers. I simply raise the question: is the ideal always for a church to match the ethnic make up of its community. Ethnicity is not only about race; it is also about style. We have three styles of music in my church, yet are all unified as one church. If one congregation likes a black style and mostly blacks appreciate that style, it seems there might be some way of seeing the ideal as something less than a perfect reflection of racial diversity in the church.

Suggestion #6: Pay the price

I am very aware that the kind of thinking above could, if we are not careful, lead us very quickly down the slippery slope toward justifying the status quo. I'd encourage you not to do this. The goal might not be perfect racial diversity in every church, but I am pretty sure that what I see week after week in nearly all-Anglo churches is a lot farther from the ideal. We are a long way from the biblical ideal of "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28 [NIV] I know of one church that to this day has it written into their constitution that only white people can be members. This is a travesty. I would stand up and applaud leaders who would pay whatever price it took to get that kind of thing changed.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott were great people who did a great work. I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and it re-kindled my appreciation for these fine people. Let's continue the work they have begun by reaching out in love to all people, regardless of race.