Beliefnet
Gaithersburg, Md., Feb 13--When the Rev. Gerard Green recently baptized children at his Epworth United Methodist Church, he was living out his dream of having a congregation that reflects "the kingdom of God." The African-American minister sprinkled five children--three white, one black and one Chinese--with consecrated water as he took turns holding them over the church's marble baptismal font.

The physical act of welcoming the youngest members immediately followed his verbal declaration from the pulpit about his diverse flock. "There are some churches that are made up of just one race or one ethnic group or one social class, but that is not who we are," preached Green, the congregation's pastor for the last decade. "I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together."

About 70 percent of the 278 congregants who observed the late January baptism were white and the rest represented a variety of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, making the church an atypical one on the American religious and racial scene.

Sociologist Michael Emerson estimates that 5.4 percent of U.S. churches are racially integrated, meaning no one group makes up more than 80 percent of the congregation. "If you go back historically, the leaders of denominations have been denouncing racism and separation for at least 100 years and the people in the pews have been ignoring those pronouncements for at least 100 years," he said. "There's a complete disconnect."

Just as the nation's sanctuaries are often segregated, many of the nation's denominations remain relatively racially separate. A look at statistics for some of the nation's predominantly white Christian denominations indicates there has sometimes been only a 1 percent or 2 percent increase in the number of African-Americans in the last decade or so. Officials of predominantly black denominations say white membership remains a mere "sprinkling."

But the lack of diversity in most Christian churches and denominations has not prevented some congregations from painting a different picture of church racial makeup. At First Baptist Church of Temple Hills, Md., a small Southern Baptist church in a racially evolving neighborhood, about one-third of the predominantly white congregation is comprised of African-Americans or Asians.

Janice Clemons, a black member, travels from Arlington, Va., to the church after having been invited by another member, a white Avon lady, in the mid-1980s when she lived closer to the sanctuary. "A Christian should fit in anywhere," Clemons said. "It doesn't matter whether you're black or white."

Louise Aycock, a white member since 1971, calls it "rather proper" to have a racially mixed congregation. A younger, Chinese-American member, Mary Kwan, said she prefers the diverse setting to one where only one racial or ethnic group is present. "I don't believe God's going to have a segregated heaven," said the university student who provided the piano accompaniment as the congregation of about 35 people sang "Holy, Holy, Holy."

Clergy charge that both predominantly white and mostly black congregations have to make the effort to change the hues in their pews. At a gathering in Memphis, Tenn., in January that marked the end of 40 years of ecumenical discussions and the start of greater cooperation among predominantly white and black denominations, the Rev. Kathryn Bannister, a white United Methodist minister from LaCrosse, Kan., challenged "privileged" white churches to leave their "comfort zone." "What would happen if these worshippers suddenly had to seek hospitality rather than give it?" she asked. "Had to face the loss of their identity, had to risk rejection?"

The Rev. Ed Schneider, a white pastor of a predominantly African-American church in Denver, said black churches need to change, too. "There are churches all over the country that are sitting in communities themselves that have changed and they are no more changing to suit the indigenous community they are now sitting in than white churches are," said Schneider, pastor of Spottswood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Denver.

Schneider, who has served as a consultant to churches wishing to be more interracial, said a divine push may be necessary. "Without that, it always will fail because humans by their nature don't like to mix and mingle more than where it's comfortable," he said.

Many church leaders point to racism as the starting point of segregated congregations and denominations -- Northern and Southern Baptists divided over slavery and many African-American Methodist denominations began when black Methodists were made unwelcome in white Methodist churches.

Today, Emerson estimates that only about 3.5 percent of congregations in this country that are racially mixed will remain that way. "Racism comes out when ... a church starts to integrate," said Emerson, an associate professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston. "Always a certain segment of people just leave. They don't want it. They can't take it."

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