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."

While pastors often see the efforts to integrate their sanctuaries as intentional, congregants often say it "just happens." But Georgina Sherman, a Liberian native at Epworth United Methodist Church, describes her membership--and leadership in the church-as personally purposeful. "The first time I visited here I barely saw a black person in the congregation and my first thought was, well, I'm not going to come back," she recalled. "But then I said, well, maybe that's why there are no blacks in the church, because when they come they say, `I'm not coming back.'"

A member since 1992, she's the first black president of the congregation's United Methodist Women's unit and marvels at the change from the time when you could easily see how many blacks were in worship. "You've got to really do a head count," said Sherman. "There's a big difference. ... It makes me feel good."

Broader intentional efforts are reflected by denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), which made a goal of increasing its non-white membership to 20 percent by 2010. As of 2000, it stood at 7 percent. However, only 8 percent of the entire church membership was aware of that goal about a year ago. "Because we're still such a very small number of membership in the Presbyterian Church as a whole, we get easily lost in the mix of things," said the Rev. Helen Locklear, a Native American woman who serves as the associate director for the denomination's racial-ethnic ministries.

With the exception of Roman Catholics, most Christian congregations that are particularly successful at interracial worship are nondenominational, said Scott Thumma, a faculty associate in religion and society at Hartford Seminary.

Their success is aided by their "experimental and expressive kinds of worship styles," and the lack of a label that may link them to a particular race, such as white with Southern Baptist or black with Church of God in Christ. "What comes along with a denominational identity ... is a whole set of baggage, including racial baggage," Thumma said.

Among the 699 United Methodist churches in the Baltimore-Washington area, Epworth United Methodist is one of about a dozen that church officials consider to have made significant progress in becoming multicultural.

Blacks, whites and parents of children and teens say Epworth's diversity is important, giving their kids an education that is simultaneously religious and cultural. "I think the church should reflect the world and the world is very diverse and I want my child to grow up in a diverse environment," said Ida Martin-Payne, an African-American woman whose infant son Michael Payne was one of the five children baptized on a recent Sunday.

But members acknowledge there is more work ahead to have a diverse group of lay members aid in leadership. Ron Clark, an 18-year, white member of the church's administrative council, said he was "uncomfortable" with the other predominantly white Methodist churches he attended and embraces Epworth's diversity. "I'm on a bit of a faith journey myself and I'm saying, Ron, you need to be more comfortable working with the various ethnic groups within your congregation," he said.

For Green, the diversity in his church is "kind of like coming home," because as a teen-ager he attended a church in the same city that was the product of a 1968 merger of three congregations -- two white and one black. Having accomplished his goal of a diverse congregation, the pastor now hopes that someday people will be "living the diversity" outside the Sunday church hour. "For so long, the broader society has kind of been dictating to the church," he said. "It's time the church needs to start influencing and transforming the world."

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