The passing of
Coretta Scott King provides an impetus for me to speak to the issue
of racial diversity in churches.
Crossing the Racial Divide
Practical steps to becoming more
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 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
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
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.