In 1962, when her son was 2 years old, Martin left Anniston “for a better life” in Oakland, Calif. She taught her son a simple rule: “Every white person isn’t bad. Every black person isn’t good. Good people come in all colors.”
When Dunn returned to Anniston in 1989, her words still resonated.
Twelve years later, when he founded Kingdom Place Ministries, one of his main aspirations was to build a diverse congregation where people worshipped colorblind.
“We have an ingrained fear,” Dunn said. “We fear loving one another outside of race, outside of culture, outside of tradition. We go to church where we’re comfortable. That’s not good enough. Too many of us have been raised in the church, when what we need is to be born into the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, we should only see God’s people.”
With a congregation that runs 80 percent black, 20 percent white, Dunn is working to achieve what he believes as the biblical mandate of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” — that the only way to truly worship God is to learn from all people of faith — no matter their race, culture, tradition, social or financial background.
“Since this ministry began, God has wanted us to be diversified … it’s the only way to learn from one another,” Dunn said. “We’ve done that by displaying love to one another or whoever comes through that door. If we show love in the church, we can’t help but come together as men and women of God.”
True diversity in Christian pews is a dream still under construction. The largest obstacles are differing opinions on music and style of worship, especially in the South, where the ghosts of racism and segregation linger just below the surface.
In order to exorcise those demons of the past, pastors must aggressively pursue diversity, rather than praying it will resolve itself, said Carlton Weathers, pastor of Grace Fellowship in Anniston, which in addition to a dozen or so black members also numbers Hispanic, Indian and Japanese among its nearly 200 members.
“Racism is a sin,” Weathers said. “To me, diversity is a gospel issue rather than a social issue. Christians must be on the forefront of integration by attempting to bring racial harmony to the community, but too often the church has been on the wrong side of the issue. Sure, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.”
‘The most segregated hour’
It’s been 53 years since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in “Strides Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” “that the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when so many are standing to sing, ‘In Christ there is no East nor West.’ Equally appalling is the fact that the most segregated school of the week is Sunday school. How often the church has had a high blood count of creeds and anemia of deeds.”
King’s indictment still rings true. According to a recent study conducted at Baylor University, nine out of 10 congregations have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of their membership.
“Socially, we’ve become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses,” said Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, who co-authored the study. “But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm. And it’s not just an issue of attraction, of getting them into the door, but of retention. Can we keep them? Our research indicates that we’ve not been able to.”
It is a challenge that all mainstream Christian denominations must acknowledge, said Will Willimon, bishop for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“Look at the numbers and what Martin Luther King said still rings true,” he said. “Attending church tends to be one of the most culturally specific things we do. In most of our churches where there is tension, it’s usually over style of worship and music, things that are as much generational as racial.”
One big difference in worship styles is the length of the service. At black churches, music, prayer, the reading of Scripture and other activities can run upwards of an hour before the preacher starts preaching.
Some 20 years ago, Willimon served as a guest pastor at a historically black church in South Carolina where the service lasted more than two hours. Afterwards, Willimon asked the pastor why worship at black churches lasts so long. The answer was, simply put, some black people have more to deal with come Sunday mornings.
“Male unemployment is running about 30 percent in this neighborhood. Young male unemployment is running about 50 percent. That means when my people are outside the church, every signal they receive from the culture is saying, ‘You’re nothing. You’re nobody.’ Then I get them into church and tell them, ‘Jesus died for you. You’re God’s people.’ It takes about two hours for them to get their heads on straight.”
Seeking something different
Tyler McDaniel’s parents never sat in a pew beside a white person.
Having been raised in Oxford at a time when it was dangerous to be black, they attended a tiny C.M.E church less than a mile from their home. Every Sunday for as long as he could remember, McDaniel went to that church, surrounded by friends and relatives. But when his parents died, McDaniel, then 27, did something they never would have considered.
“I went to a white church … several, in fact,” he said. “It was a different generation. I had white friends and co-workers, went to a racially mixed school at JSU. I even dated a white girl, so going to church with white people wasn’t that big a deal.”
At first, he felt a bit out of place, McDaniel admitted. Not because anyone in the pews treated him differently, but because he was in such a “total minority practically everywhere I went.” There were other black members at Word Alive, the church he most frequently attended — “quite a few,” in fact. But then he started talking to friends who still attended predominately black churches.
“It was about going where they were raised,” he said. “It wasn’t just that I was in the minority in terms of where I went to church, I was also in the minority as someone who wasn’t afraid to seek out something different. And I think that’s the problem for both blacks and whites. True diversity on Sunday mornings will forever be a problem because we never stop to consider that where we are might not be where we belong.
“Faith is supposed to challenge us. We’ll never really learn anything if we’re always surrounded by people who think and act just like we do … it’s a dead end.”
Church leaders encourage diversity
Willimon and other United Methodist Church leaders have encouraged diversity by making cross-racial appointments — placing a black minister in charge of a predominately white congregation, or vice versa. They have met with only limited success.
“Unfortunately, we can’t point to a case where it dramatically energized or grew a congregation, at least not repeatedly,” Willimon said. “That’s terribly disappointing.”
Genia Garrett was one of those cross-racial appointments. Today, Garrett, who is black, is the minister at the predominantly black Glen Addie Community Church — which also has eight white members. For the previous three years, however, she was minister at four churches in Iowa where she was the only black person in the congregation.
“I think sometimes we get too hung up on tradition, on what we think is right or ‘normal,’ and that means being surrounded by people who look and act like us,” Garrett said. “In doing that, we can block out the power of what God is trying to do. You can’t keep God in a box. When it comes to worship, when it comes to getting closer to God, we’ve all got to think outside the box we were raised in.”
Born in Birmingham and raised in the Baptist church, Garrett felt called to preach from a young age, but because she was Baptist her options were limited. Now, as a Methodist, she has come to understand and respect various forms of worship, from the conservative traditionalism common to white congregations to the enthusiastic worship of black churches.
At Glen Addie Community Church, the most important thing is the music, Garrett said. “We have different members of various denominations — Holiness, Baptist, Pentecostal — but they all want vibrant praise, especially in the music. They expect the songs to take them off to heaven and just be off the chain, and they expect the preacher to bring the word — dynamic with fire and brimstone,” she said.
“I think blacks have been given the gift of freedom of worship, the power and the gift of feeling the music and using that in their worship to God,” Garrett said. “And while that might look more dynamic, it’s just different — not necessarily better.”
‘They were just like me’
Nita Jones considers herself to be quiet and reserved most of the time, but that all changes when she steps into Kingdom Place Ministries, where she is one of a handful of white members. Raised Methodist, Jones attended mostly nondenominational churches before being invited by a friend to visit Kingdom Place five years ago. She never went anywhere else. During services, she claps, raises her hands to the heavens and praises the Lord “loudly.”
It was the first time she’d ever been in the minority during worship services — but she didn’t really notice. “It didn’t really register,” she said with a laugh. “I know it sounds strange, but color didn’t exist for me. Everybody was kind and I felt right at home. The way I saw it, they were just like me. Inside, Christians are all the same … at least they should be.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
A brief history of the black church
For all the social justice movements that the black church has spawned, it began in silence and secrecy. To speak of the “Invisible Institution,” as it was once known, meant beatings at the hands of slave owners and possibly even death for those who dared congregate under the midnight sky.
Using a series of signals and passwords, slaves found their way to “hush harbors” where they mixed African rhythms and native beliefs with Christianity. Part church, part emotional refuge, the Invisible Institution was one of the few ways slaves were allowed to express hope.
In the 18th century, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans poured onto the shores of South Carolina and Georgia to clear land, drain swamps and cultivate sugar, rice and cotton. Those who survived the harsh conditions created a new way of spiritual life, borrowing culturally from each other and from Europeans. Protestant missionaries then conducted revivals and established churches.
“African-Americans responded to the missionaries, for the gospel of salvation touched vital chords among these enslaved people whose blighted existence filled them with hopelessness and despair,” said author and religious scholar William Montgomery. “Although it was spiritual salvation rather than earthly liberation the missionaries promised, African-Americans didn’t make the distinction.”
Slaves came from hundreds of different societies with dozens of different languages, explained the late author C. Eric Lincoln in The Black Church in the African-American Experience. They were scattered across the country to avoid an uprising. It was the church that connected the different nationalities. The church built schools. Black banks and insurance companies came from the church, as did music, theater and literature. Most famously, the Civil Rights movement was born and nurtured in black churches.
“This is the part of the process,” Lincoln wrote, “by means of which the black church drew together this vast conglomerate of disparate Africans into one single community. It was the church.”
The style of worship found in black churches has its roots in the ancient meetings of the Invisible Institution, where dancing, belief in the power of the human voice and prayer was directed to ancestors and the gods. But as Christianity was embraced, in order to separate spiritual dancing from regular dancing, “shouters” couldn’t cross their feet, and the circle was only allowed to move counterclockwise.
“There has been a lot of crosspollination of Christianity in this country over the past 200-300 years,” Montgomery said. “In a lot of African-American churches, there still exists the remnants of the ritual behavior that originated in Africa before being transplanted, cultivated and modified.”