written by Deesha Philyaw, Anti-Racist Parent columnist
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of his early sermons as an associate pastor at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, said the following: “I am [ashamed] and appalled that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.”
I’ve heard Dr. King quoted on this subject many times, but not until I prepared to write about a recent church experience was I aware of the “[ashamed] and appalled” part. According to Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. King also wrote that the Christian church was “the greatest preserver of the status quo” and, thereby, “one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry.” He concluded that “the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world. I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church.”
As a Christian and as an admirer of Dr. King’s efforts and leadership, I didn’t read these words lightly, especially because the churches of my youth reflected precisely the segregation that Dr. King lamented. Now, I know enough history to know that Sunday morning segregation certainly didn’t originate with black folks; we have slavery and Jim Crow to thank for that. I also believe that black churchgoers weren’t the agents of the bigotry to which Dr. King referred. But here we are, many decades after he made that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning observation, and yet the pews in many American churches still look like 1953.
We have a black President-Elect and yet only about 5 percent of our churches are racially integrated, and half of them are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white, according to a CNN.com interview with Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of United by Faith, a book about interracial churches in the U.S.
This issue hits home for me as someone who was born, raised, and “churched” in the South, just as Dr. King was. Over the course of my childhood, I attended Baptist churches, AME churches, Pentecostal churches, Church of God in Christ churches (plus one church in which a washboard served as an instrument and a female preacher “saw” something in me during a revival, but that’s a church story for a different Sunday). My early church-going experience ran the gamut, including periods of “not-going”. One thing that remained constant, however, was that all the congregations I belonged to were black. I lived in a black neighborhood, as did most of my relatives and friends. Big chunks of our lives were segregated, so why not church? I never considered church a segregated place. Segregation had to do with lunch counters, water fountains and buses, Bull Connor, schools and fire hoses. Church was just…church.
To my young mind, church was an extension of my black neighborhood, so of course only black people would be there. My small world broke down into black and white: black people went to churches where there was clapping, singing, shouting, Holy Ghost dancing, charismatic preachers, ushers in white, and hand fans with a funeral home ad on one side, and Jesus, a blue-eyed blond on the other. (Again, a church story for another Sunday.)
I saw white churches on TV or drove past them downtown. They were huge structures with entire buildings dedicated soley to Sunday School, and their services were orderly affairs. This of course was the era before black folks (aside from Reverend Ike and his ilk) joined the mega-church bandwagon en masse, and before I knew about snake-handling, slain-in-the-spirit white folks.
This narrow perception of “white church” was driven home for me by a Catholic Mass I attended when I was about 8-years-old. I went to work with my grandmother during the summer, and at lunch time, her co-worker, Miss Helen, invited me to go with her to Mass. I had no idea what Mass was, but I wanted to find out.
Miss Helen and I entered the church, and I was overwhelmed. The beauty, the size…nothing like any church I’d ever been inside. I noticed that Miss Helen and I were the only black people present, and this was as intriguing to my as the mystery of the parishioners splashing water on their foreheads from a little fountain. At the time, I had a terrible summer cold, but something told me that I could not interrupt the service with a loud cough. So I held it, suffering in silence until Miss Helen noticed me hunched over, looking slightly crazed. She whisked me outside and back to my grandmother, very annoyed that I had cut her Mass short.
White churches seemed, to young me, to be quiet places–not the kind of places for a barking cough–their worship more subdued, less spirit-filled, and therefore, less authentic. The grown-ups around me reinforced this impression.
Still armed with these stereotypical views of church, I headed off to college and…mostly didn’t go to church. I felt bad about that, and occasionally attended a black Baptist church near campus. After college, and, shortly after that, marriage, I searched more earnestly for a church home. My then-husband and I visited several Baptist and AME churches in the communities where we lived in New York and Connecticut, but nothing felt like “home.”
When we relocated to Pittsburgh, we succeeded in finding a church home, and there for the first time, we belonged to a multiracial/multiethnic congregation, one that existed as such purposefully. And also for the first time, church-going for me wasn’t merely cultural or social. It was personal. My faith grew, deepened, and was challenged, all at once. At this church, I embraced the concept of service. Previously, I’d approached church as a “consumer”; now I saw myself as part of a community of servants.
I also embraced the concept of cross-cultural/racial fellowship. As one pastor pointed out, “multiracial/multicultural” simply describes the setting. Yes, we were a bunch of black, white, East Indian, and Latino folk, soccer moms and heavily pierced bikers, connected at the hip in the pews. Dr. King would have been so pleased. But were we having meaningful interactions outside of church? Were we having cross-cultural/racial exchanges that brought us up short and built community? Or were we simply congratulating ourselves on being so very diverse? A decade later, this concept still challenges and informs my thinking about anti-racism parenting, and any kind of anti-racism effort.
However, after six years at that church, I felt a disconnect there socially and sought a different worship environment. A friend had spoken very fondly of her time as a member of a local Episcopal parish, so my family and I visited. Ultimately, we joined this congregation, and in doing so brought the black family total to two. There were also two black women and the occasional black college student. visiting from a nearby university. For the first time, I was worshiping in a what the folks back home would call a “white” church. Where was the shouting, the choir soloist who fancied herself the next Whitney Houston, the fire and brimstone? And what was up with the incense, the standing-kneeling-sitting-standing-kneeling, and that whole drinking-from-the-common-cup thing?
The first time my mother attended church with me while visiting from Florida, I thought she was going to sic an exorcist on me. Communion on a Sunday other than the first Sunday of the month? Heresy! Imagine her relief when, after much reassuring from me, she took Communion and did not burst into flames. But best believe she did not drink from the common cup!
But I did drink from the common cup. I loved the whole liturgy. I loved the quiet and the incense. The ritual and the repetition were refreshing. I found myself reflecting on the words of the hymns and the prayers that we sang and spoke in unison every week. Instead of a burst of raw emotive experience (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I enjoyed more of a slow burn of meaning and thought.
Then one Sunday, after we’d attended the church for a few years, my older daughter announced, “I don’t like being the only brown person in Sunday School.” This was a first. She had always looked forward to Sunday School, church dinners and special events, choir rehearsal, and singing in the choir. But for some reason–and to this day, I still don’t know why–she suddenly needed more brown faces on Sunday morning. I didn’t spend a lot of time asking why. Instead, the Mama Bear in me set out to find a racially diverse church that offered a liturgy that resonated with me. And had a great Sunday School program. Oh, and a kids choir. And more that 10 people in the congregation. With a social justice mission, but that was still conservative enough that my kids’ father wouldn’t balk at their attendance. And if it could be a short drive from my house, that would be great too.
Needless to say, it’s taken me nearly three years to even find a close contender. Clearly my wish list was more of a “you wish” list. We visited other Episcopal churches; Presbyterian churches; and a non-denominational church which once featured a really, really, really loud Christian punk band. During the 2008 presidential campaign, while others debated Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s influence on Barack Obama, the whole fiasco had me researching local United Churches in Christ.
Obviously, the problem was that no one church was going to meet all my wants. Something had to give. And what may have given–jury’s still out–is the racial diversity factor. I’ve found a nearby Episcopal church with a predominantly black congregation. It’s been right up under my nose all along. It felt great today to read from the Book of Common Prayer, to see a young woman with braids wielding the incense, and to sing a spiritual, “Jesus is a-Listenin’” amidst the traditional hymns. The white rector and a few other white congregants aside, I’m essentially choosing segregation. What would Dr. King say?
I’d like to think he’d say that there’s a difference between segregation that has to do with being unwelcoming and separatist, that has to do with a supremacist mindset, and that which was historically conceived out of necessity and which is now welcoming to all.
It’s an interesting time to be an Episcopalian, especially one in Pittsburgh. What with a deposed bishop and declared schism, we’ve even got our own Wikipedia entry, two in fact. Proof positive that few things in life are truly black and white.
Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer whose publications include Essence, Wondertime (a Disney publication), Bitch magazine, and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.
Image courtesy of Celestial Photography on Flickr