There is an old saying that mentions Sunday as the most segregated day of the week.
It was first coined by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the beginning of the civil rights era in reference to both race and economic class.
“It depicted the intense chasms that existed between races and between communities,” said Dr. Horace Patterson, who has been pastor at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church in Talladega for 36 years.
“It pointed to both the problem of racism and classism at that time.”
Patterson said he believes that since then, the South has experienced spiritual maturation.
“Because of that we frown upon things that were once supported,” Patterson said.
“Are we where we ought to be? Not yet, but we’re moving in the right direction and that’s so encouraging.
“We’ve reached a point in this city where we measure our behavior by the word of God.
According to a CNN article, “Why Many Americans Prefer Their Sundays Segregated” by John Blake, scholars have said American churches haven’t traditionally had much success with being racially inclusive.
Scholars like Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of "United by Faith," a book that examines interracial churches in the United States, also compare the act of attending an integrated church to stepping in a racial minefield, with members uneasy about what comment or gesture someone might find offensive.
“You must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Johnny Harris, a deacon at Mt. Canaan who has been a member of the church for 24 years.
“I think people feel comfortable with each other,” Harris said. “When you talk about diversity and inclusion, a person must be willing to come out of their comfort zone because you’re crossing boundaries that you are not accustomed to.”
Harris said that although Mt. Canaan is not a largely diverse church when it comes to race, the congregation has welcomed everyone to worship with them regardless of race, sexual orientation or disability.
“Even people that come off the street that have been economically challenged have been welcomed to our church,” Harris said.
For Tim Thomas, pastor of Munford Baptist Church, integration is a two-way street between the ministry and visitors.
“I think the spoon that stirs the pot is not the church,” Thomas said.
“The doors here at Munford Baptist Church are open for anyone who wants to worship.”
Thomas said his ministry doesn’t look to target one particular group over another, but is open to everyone.
“I am interested in the content of their heart,” Thomas said. “Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you have a step up on anybody spiritually.”
Thomas said he believes the old adage of “this is how I was raised” is not applicable after one has decided to take the wheel of his or her own life.
He said that as one gets older, he or she is responsible for making their own decisions.
Jim Usher, who directs a food program at Munford Baptist Church, said he has seen people from all walks of life and from different races line up to receive food and supplies at the church the first Saturday morning of every month.
He recalled one particular incident where he invited an African-American visitor who was picking up food and supplies to attend a church service on Sunday.
The visitor was shocked that he had been invited, and asked Usher, “Am I allowed?”
Often, a closed mindset among those in the community can serve as a barrier for an opportunity to worship with people from different races and backgrounds.
“It’s what culture has taught them and what society has taught them, and when a white man asks them to church they’re shocked,” Usher said.
He said he believes the mindset needs to change and Americans from all ethnic backgrounds need to accept each other as Americans.
“We’ve all been here for generations and generations, we’ve all been American,” Usher said.
“We choose to separate.”
Usher and Thomas agree that some people are still afraid to talk about race, don’t want to discuss it or bring it up, and prefer to be comfortable with the way things are.
They also believe people buy into a cop-out that someone could never understand their culture, barring any attempt to reach out beyond that comfort zone.
“We’ve all been here long enough, this is our culture,” Usher said,
“We’re Americans, I don’t care what color you are, and that’s the way it can be at church.”
There was a time, Blake pointed out, when slavery and Jim Crow kept whites and non-whites apart in the pews.
This led to the development of large contemporary African-American denominations, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which were formed because African-Americans could not find acceptance in white churches.
Patterson remembers this time well, but believes churches in the Talladega community, where his church is based, are working toward a brighter future together.
“I think we have grown in the South,” Patterson said. “And I believe in my heart we have grown in Talladega.”
Patterson said he doesn’t see racism as the tool or factor that keeps people from worshipping.
He noted other factors besides race that need to be taken into consideration, such as whether or not that church meets that individual’s needs.
“Many of us go to churches that we grew up in as children or because of our family’s influence upon us, or because of a certain way worship takes place,” Patterson said.
“Many times it’s not what the preacher says, it’s how he says it.”
In his 36 years pastoring Mt. Canaan, Patterson said there has never been a problem of exclusion when it came to different races, and that throughout the years he has seen people from different ethnicities attend service there.
Patterson has preached at local churches with a predominately white ministry, and white pastors have come to preach at his ministry, and he believes local churches as a whole are becoming more sensitive to the needs of others.
“If we are Christian there is one thing we know and it is that God loves people,” Patterson said. “All people matter to God, therefore they should matter to us.”
Patterson, like Usher and Thomas, believes that diversity and inclusion among a congregation is a two-way street.
“Even if they frown at you, smile at them and say, ‘I’ll see you next Sunday,’” Patterson said.
“If you can be turned around by a look, a word or somebody’s body posture toward you, you might need to examine why you are in church in the first place.”
He encourages visitors who may be out of their comfort zone to look beyond local churches to see the broader picture the kingdom of God is painting in their lives.
“The church does not belong to them, it belongs to God,” Patterson said.
“It is God’s property and it is important to practice stewardship of God’s property as one interacts with God’s people.”
Contact Aziza Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org