“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America,” is a familiar statement that Martin Luther King, Jr. used in many speeches. What you probably don’t know is the identity of the man who first made that statement in a 1950s Reader’s Digest article on racism. The article was written by Dr. King’s friend, evangelist Billy Graham. For the purpose of this article, let’s agree that the statement is true. Is that necessarily a bad or racist thing? If most of your church members have the same racial identity, does that really make your church a racist church?
Let me give you some background.
I am the Pastor of a church on the border of Texas and Mexico that is 95 percent Hispanic. The church was established 50 years ago in an effort to reach out to immigrants from Mexico by preaching the Gospel and worshiping in Spanish. Over the years, the church has evolved into a bi-lingual, bi-cultural body of believers that still reaches out to new immigrants from Mexico (still pouring over the border), but now also to a growing number of bi-lingual Mexican-Americans, who follow the Dallas Cowboys, the San Antonio Spurs, enjoy Olive Garden cuisine, are often more comfortable speaking in English in their daily conversation, and are just as American as a man in North Dakota.
Although the demographic makeup of deep South Texas is 80 percent Hispanic, some people would still call our church “racist” because we are so homogonous. I recently listened to a sermon on the internet in which the pastor said that if every church does not have a “diverse” membership, they are tacit “racists”. Is that a fact?
My dictionary defines a “racist” as a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others or discriminatory especially on the basis of race or religion.
Speaking for our church, we certainly don’t believe that one race is superior to others. Anyone is welcome to worship at our church, regardless of race or background. Over the years, we have had a wide variety of races speak from our pulpit, including Indians, Philipinos, African-Americans, Mexicans, and, of course, Scandinavians. Several years ago, we invited a Black choir to come and sing during our New Year’s celebration. Our door is open to the world. So we are not superior or discriminatory.
But, you might be thinking, maybe the Pastor is a racist. I’m a Swedish/Norwegian-American/Texan married to a beautiful Mexican lady (who recently became an American citizen). We have a daughter who is half Mexican, one quarter Swedish, one quarter Norwegian, 100 percent American, and a Texan by the grace of God. To suggest that I, as the pastor, would have a problem with multi-culturalism would be insane. (While I’m on the topic, Pastor John Piper has a great sermon on Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage, why cross-cultural marriages are Biblical and to be encouraged, available on his website.)
So why, though our doors are open to people of all races, do mainly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans attend our church? The answer is not that they are all racist. The answer is that our church’s local mission/vision is to reach out to and minister primarily to those families who have a language and cultural connection to Mexico, and secondarily have familiarity with the Spanish language.
In our church, many Mexican traditions are followed in our wedding ceremonies, such as the “exchange of coins”, “the love knot” and “the lasso”. Every year, we officiate “Quinceañeras“, a special party for a girl’s 15th birthday. Much of our worship music is influenced by Mexican worship composers, like Marcos Witt and Jesus Adrian Romero. So why would African-American people, or Anglo, non Spanish-speaking people not be comfortable worshiping every Sunday in our church? Because they would probably be more comfortable worshiping God within the context of their own culture. I don’t view this as racist at all, as long as everyone is always welcome.
I do think, however, that someone who attends a particular church to “escape” fellowship with Christians of other races is not a Biblical Christian. And the unfortunate church member who believes that their church’s cultural expression of worship is the only “legitimate” style of worship is also missing the Biblical mark. No particular cultural style of worship is superior to another (are you reading this, my Messianic friends and my “anti-rock-and-roll-in-church pharisees”?), but I would submit that the cultural differences in our expressions of worship to God are what make our churches unique and special.
Any time we go on vacation to San Antonio, my wife and I always visit Black churches, because we really love the way they worship God, and really enjoy their enthusiastic choirs and “hooping” style of preaching. We have always been warmly welcomed, and, in some cases, celebrated, by each church we have visited, even though no one else in the building shared our skin color.
My point is this: Sometimes diversity is what makes our churches interesting! I wouldn’t want every church to look alike, and worship exactly the same way in the same style. Maybe we are knocking down a straw man, when we righteously bellow, “Eleven ‘o clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”
Do you want to see something interesting? Look at what John sees in heaven in Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Do you notice what I see in that passage? Even in heaven, John recognizes differences between people of diverse nations, tribes, peoples and languages. Will we still have cultural, national and racial identities in heaven? Hmmmm…
Let’s love each other as brothers, regardless of race, but let’s stop calling churches that minister within a particular sub-culture, (or to a particular sub-set of Americans) racists.
*Here is a link to a very intersting discussion of church segregation on National Public Radio.