During the Great Migration, millions of Black Americans fled the violence of the Jim Crow south for a new life in northern cities. In response, thousands of white Americans left their diversifying city to resettle in homogeneous suburbs in a reactionary migration known as white flight. Left behind in the systematically segregated communities of color was something white families couldn’t take with them– their churches.
White Christians could build suburban churches just like they built suburban businesses and suburban schools. But the church where they were baptized and married, the church where their grandparents were buried, that church with all of its nostalgia and sentiment, was in the middle of the now-predominantly Black neighborhood they abandoned.
In response, many suburban families packed into the Buick on Sunday mornings and commuted to their generational church back in the blockbusted neighborhood. Locking car doors and clutching purses through the part of town coded as “dangerous” was just as much a part of the worship rite as standing for the opening hymn.
The vast majority of these vestige white churches failed to integrate because they deferred to the culture and preferences of members they were trying to keep over the culture and preferences of neighbors of color they were called to reach. The neighborhood wasn’t very interested in an Oktoberfest, but the parishioners organized one every year. In time, these churches died out as predictably as their commuting laity.
When I went through the archives for my denomination and pulled data for congregations that have closed in and around my hometown of St. Louis since 1950, plotting their addresses was like pinning up an overlay of redlined neighborhoods onto a map of St. Louis. In my denomination, 26 of the 31 congregations that have closed in the greater St. Louis area since 1950 are in predominantly Black neighborhoods. By those same standards, 31 churches closed in the city limits of Detroit. 34 in the city of Chicago. The pattern repeats in every northern city in every mainline denomination across the country.
Behind these numbers are specific churches with specific stories. Stories like Bethany Lutheran Church — a beautiful, imposing stone church built in 1870. When the neighborhood changed during the Great Migration, the predominantly German church did not. By 1995, Bethany closed and became one of St. Louis’ monuments of racism, the cross from its steeple casting a condemning shadow over the urban blight it did little to prevent.
Three Ways to Bring About Institutional Change
But just as both individual and institutional actions caused white flight, individual and institutional actions can bring about ethnic conciliation within the Church, as well:
1. Learn Your History.
If you are a Christian, learn the role your denomination or city played in the history of the Great Migration and white flight. More specifically, take the time to learn specific names of abandoned neighborhoods and abandoned churches in your community.
2. Acknowledge Your Role.
The Old Testament book of Nehemiah begins with Nehemiah confessing both his sins and the sins of his ancestors which brought about a national crisis. (Nehemiah 1:6) Like Nehemiah, white Christians are free to acknowledge what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do, both for ourselves and for those we represent. Punishment is not a prerequisite for our penance.
Though white Christians may not have enacted the policies of the Jim Crow era or the horrors of slavery, those abandoned churches in abandoned neighborhoods don’t allow them to play hot potato with the blame of white flight. You may not have been alive for the white flight, but all of us were alive when these churches died a slow death, and now live when the social and economic effects of white flight are still seen and felt.
Who else should confess for the abandoned church other than those who chiseled their name above its doorway?
3. Match Your Repentance With Your Offense.
In the biographies of Jesus, after a tax collector named Zacchaeus was convicted of stealing wealth (Luke 19:10), he paid back four times the amount he took from those he wronged. His repentance matched his offense.
The most accurate form of repentance for white Christians is to break the racialized geography in their cities and return to the neighborhoods they fled. Not to displace and gentrify the communities, but to reintegrate and model the famously inclusive love of Jesus. Those who are unable to reintegrate in a community can still pledge a monthly offering or become the champion partner to an urban ministry or charity serving in urban neighborhoods. The opportunities to serve as individuals or institutions are limited only by our humility and willingness.
Learning, confession and repentance for the sins of white flight are necessary steps for ethnic conciliation among Christians and within Christian institutions. But when these steps are taken, instead of a lack of diversity undermining our message about Jesus, our diversity will validate that same message.
The world will know God so loves them because we did, as well.
Chris Paavola is a church planter and pastor in University City, a community inside the innerbelt of metro St. Louis, MO. You can follow him on Twitter at @chris_paavola.