On Sundays, I drive my African-American wife and daughter to our local United Methodist church. Reflecting the north Texas suburb we live in, this church is more than 90 percent white. We attend this church despite having both grown up in Southern black churches—her AME, myself Baptist—and being black ourselves. But it is a church we greatly enjoy and fulfills most of our religious and community needs. After many late-night discussions, we made the conscious decision to be part of a small segment of African-Americans who have decided that Sunday morning ought not be the most segregated time in America (the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life notes that only 4 percent of African-Americans attend a mainline protestant church).
Before joining this church, my experiences with predominantly white churches had been limited. I had occasionally attended white church services in college, but never felt comfortable enough to attend regularly. My apprehension existed despite attending predominantly white schools, living in an overwhelmingly white suburb and having a good racial mix of friends. Except for church, my life was one of post-Civil Rights integration. But my parents had made a conscious decision for us to attend a black Baptist church deep in the heart of Oklahoma City.
My wife and I didn’t look seriously at finding a church home until we were expecting our first child. To be honest, there were very few black churches where we were to begin with, and the ones that were there didn’t have the tangibles we felt were important. After attending multiple predominantly black non-denominational and Baptist services in our area, we found ourselves gravitating toward a different worship experience. We were looking for a well-organized, mainline denominational church with a strong focus on small group biblical study, community outreach and a passion for building God-centered relationships. We were also looking for a church that had an energetic, organized youth ministry that would help us guide our daughter. We decided that the ability of a church to provide all of this far outweighed the race of its worshippers.
The church we found is all of this and so much more. Our worship home is loving, welcoming and active. Our now toddling daughter is well taken care of by an amazing nursery staff, and we have found a great small group to be a part of. We love how welcoming everyone has been as well as their deep commitment to the community and God—but that does not mean it has been a seamless transition.
Admittedly, I’m someone who likes to blend in with a crowd, to not stand out—but I have had to get used to standing out. My family is easily identified in the congregation, and my daughter doesn’t have to wear the requisite identifying nametag in the nursery that is required of other babies. As the only black child of one of the few black, non-interracial families, it’s not hard to figure out to whom she belongs. When people I don’t know greet me, I’m never sure if they are greeting me like they would any other member of the congregation, or if they’re trying to prove some level of racial openness to me or themselves. My wife says my racial paranoia is all in my head and, of course, she’s right … I think.
I’ve also had to accept the fact that the views I hold are frequently different than those in my small group. After some tense class discussions, I seldom offer my opinion on most things political. Many of the social outings they suggest are of little interest to me; I don’t know if it is because they are activities that most black people don’t enjoy or haven’t experienced, or if it is because I am a profoundly dull person (I suspect it is the latter). And despite my religious upbringing telling me otherwise, I’ve also become accustomed to stained glass and other artistic depictions of Jesus and biblical figures as pale, white men.
We can speak openly about the obvious and superficial reasons why churches are still segregated: The style of worship and preaching are different. The black church dress code is more formal, while members of many white churches have become more relaxed. The hour-long service that I attend now is half as long as the black churches of my youth.
But more than the surface differences, we have to look at the legacy of church in America. It is only recently that blacks have been welcome at white churches. The black church has served as a refuge during times of hardship and oppression from society at large. There are things that I think I will always miss about attending ablack church. I miss the energetic, whooping-filled sermons that Iabhorred as a kid. The soulful sounds of a gospel choir will always move me more than a Spirit-filled praise band. Mostly, though, I miss theconnection the black church offers to other black people in thecommunity. That’s what I worry about the most: my family’s connection to a larger black identity. By staying in this white church, I am denyingmy daughter an experience that my parents pushed so hard for me to have.
But the people I’ve met are genuine and caring. They are the kind ofpeople who take meals to families who have just had a baby, or gettogether on Friday nights to assemble meals for the local homelessshelter.
I still don’t believe churches should integrate for the sole sake of integration, and I don’t think a church needs to change who it is to try to achieve some clearly stated diversity objectives. But I do think we, as Christians, need to be willing to have an open, honest discussion about why churches remain divided when so much of society is changing.
Bryan T. Calvin is a community college professor in Fort Worth, TX. He can be reached at [email protected]