Monday, October 31, 2016

Hard Differences for Most Churchgoers


If you attend a church, you're probably aware that America's deepest segregation occurs every Sunday morning.

Whites generally go to their white-majority churches, and blacks generally go to their black-majority churches.

It's not an official rule, since ostensibly, whites are welcome to attend predominantly black churches, and vice-versa.  But while we'll dine, shop, work, get educated, and recreate together, blacks and whites generally prefer homogeneity when it comes to corporate worship.

It's been than way for generations, of course, since our country's earliest days.  It used to be forced through laws and social decree.  Yet although our nation has witnessed some major milestones in terms of racial reconciliation, things remain decidedly divided when it comes to church attendance between whites and blacks.

White, Washed Church

The church I attend now, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, Texas, is 25 years old, and virtually all-white.  Not by design, or desire, but mostly by default.

I was there when it celebrated its 10th anniversary, back in 2001.  And instead of throwing itself a party, the church's leadership decided to create a brand-new inner-city ministry for one of the poorest - and blackest - parts of Dallas, its west side.  That neighborhood has languished for generations literally on the other side of the Trinity River - what irony, considering that name! - across from most of the city's whitest and richest neighborhoods.

Soon after the church leadership announced its plans, our senior pastor announced one Sunday that a prominent member of the congregation had complained about spending so much money - it would cost millions to create and sustain the ministry - on black people.  His attitude had been swiftly condemned by other leaders, but apparently, this particular person refused to repent of his blatant racism, so he was asked to leave the church.  When our pastor announced this, I remember how sobering it was for the congregation, and indeed, our pastor seemed deeply embarrassed - and a bit angry - that he had to make such an announcement in this day and age.

A couple of years ago, I learned that a different white member of our church saw a little black girl running and shouting down a hall in the children's ministry area.  This little girl had been adopted by a white family in the church; at the time, and even today, I think the only black kids we have in the church (there are precious few) are adopted.

At any rate, the white "lady" church member stopped the little black girl in the hallway and scolded her.  "If you're going to live on this side of the tracks," she admonished the child, "you'll have to learn some manners."

Does that story shock you?  It angered me when I heard it, and even as I relay it to you now, I'm embarrassed and saddened by it.  I know I have racist tendencies myself - we all do, don't we? - but I don't think I've ever said anything as cruel as that, especially to a child.

Still, do you know what was conveyed in that calloused reprimand of the little girl?  Not only the ethnocentric insinuation that white people have higher standards of behavior than black people, but the whole "other side of the tracks" notion that wealthier folks are better than poorer folks.

Stratification More than Skin Deep

Indeed, we have racial segregation within America's religious communities, but don't we also have economic segregation?

Skin color is pretty easy to detect, but pegging where people are within America's socioeconomic spectrum isn't difficult.  Indeed, although I'm white, which makes my skin color blend in at Park Cities Presbyterian, I suspect I'm one of the poorest people who attend.  And I suspect I'm not the only person at my church who's aware of that!

The newness of one's clothing matters at my church.  The style, and how it fits into what's expected of a wealthy person's wardrobe; indeed, how garments fit matters.  How well-groomed one's hair is, whether you're a man or woman.  Shoes are very important, as are jewelry and eyeglasses.  Where you went to college, what your parents did for a living, where you vacation - and how often you take vacations! - all deeply matter, whether people at my church want to admit it or not.

After all, if this stuff didn't matter, would the folks around me at church be talking about them so much, and so enthusiastically?

I once applied for a job at my church, and was told point-blank that since my father had been a sales manager for a construction supply company, I probably wouldn't be a good fit.  I also graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington - a decidedly non-prestigious institution - so that was another strike against me socially.  The person telling me this - the church's human resource director at the time - wasn't being mean; in fact, he was trying to be helpful, perhaps out of his own frustration with the snobbish hierarchies at the place where he both worked and worshipped.  Nevertheless, I understood that I'm a social inferior in the eyes of many folks at this church.  And from talking with several other congregants of similarly humble backgrounds as mine, I've come to see that I'm not the only one.

I try not to let it gnaw at me.  I try to remind myself that life isn't about money and status.  Indeed, I've learned that wealth is relative, and I've seen how it can control folks who think they control it.  And I can't blame anybody else for not being rich myself.  I imagine I'd enjoy having money, but I haven't yearned for it hard enough to be as driven as most people need to be to acquire it - and sustain its perks. 

I haven't worked outside the home for years, partly to help Mom care for my dementia-stricken father, and partly because of my chronic clinical depression.  But helping to care for my Dad has been my deepest satisfaction in life; being able to repay a fraction of what he devoted to me.  And my chronic clinical depression?  At least that's not my fault, and I'm grateful my parents have been supportive of me through it.  Other people with my condition aren't so fortunate.

My Honda?  It's no luxury car, but although it's eight years old, there's really nothing wrong with it.  Even if I had the money to replace it with a flashy European nameplate, what would be my justification, beyond vanity?

Virtually my entire wardrobe is even older than my car.  I use liberal amounts of super glue to keep my shoes from literally falling apart.  I don't own my home, or any Apple product, or sky miles, or stocks.  Sometimes I laugh to myself at how much nothing I have!

Ironically, however, I attend the wealthiest congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America denomination.  Our church budget this year is $13.2 million.  Our church parking lots resemble a Lexus dealership's.  There's a billionaire who's a member of this church.  Untold numbers of attenders are multi-millionaires.  It's been said that the best place to have a heart attack in Dallas is our sanctuary, since so many doctors are members of our church.  Lawyers, investment bankers, financial planners, corporate CEO's - the place is crawling with moneyed elite.

And you know what - it's intimidating!  I used to say "hello" to people in the hallways and foyers of our church campus, but I stopped doing that long ago, since most people look right past me.  I joined the chancel choir and discovered that this church's most humble people must all be singers, since just about everybody in the choir is very friendly with me, no matter their wealth or social status.

Part of the stigma (or aura, depending on your perspective) at Park Cities Presbyterian is that it's a church started by and for residents of two exceptionally affluent towns, Highland Park and University Park.  Together, the lifestyle enjoyed by homeowners in these two concentrated enclaves is called the "Park Cities Bubble", since they have their own schools, shops, and police forces to support a standard of living that is so much more elevated and well-heeled than virtually any other part of the Dallas area.

But you know what - rich people need the Lord as much as anybody else, right?  God is not a respecter of persons, even if many Park Cities folks are.  Still, as a poor white person who attends an overwhelmingly affluent white church, I see a lot of the differentiation dynamics that black people say they see when they try to attend white churches.  Only for me, instead of skin color, it's socioeconomic status that creates stratification.

More Project than Peer

Of course, my financial situation might change at some point in the future.  But skin color doesn't change.

Isaac Adams, a black pastor in Washington, DC, recently wrote an article entitled, "Why White Churches are Hard for Black People".  In it, he describes common black feelings of being ostracized by such things as the hair styles black women wear to the feeling many blacks have of being more "project than peer" when they attend a white church. 

There's the issue of whites not really understanding America's genuine black experience, but that extends beyond the way black people look, to how whites tend to either go overboard when trying to welcome blacks, or pretend that different skin colors don't exist.

"Whites have the privilege to ignore issues that haunt and hurt black people, issues which black people cannot ignore", Adams explains.  "On any given Sunday, blacks attend churches where the majority of the members and the leadership are woefully undiscipled on issues that shape black experiences, black fears, and black families".

Even the way many of us whites try to empathize with black churchgoers can seem stilted.

"When white people ask us about our experience," Adams writes, "they sometimes sound more interested in their own enlightenment - not the lightening of our burdens.  Their well-meaning questions only begin with them:  'I would like to know... Tell me more about...'  They seem more interested in anthropology than applying their theology, like when a white sister asked to touch my mother’s hair".

Some of what Adams wants to change strikes me as a bit unrealistic on his part.  If blacks want whites to appreciate the things they face specifically because of their race, how else does he think we'll learn about those experiences if we don't ask?  Another of Adams' observations is that whites - and Reformed whites in particular - like to fixate on doctrine, as if doing so is a bad thing.  What Adams doesn't seem to realize is that within the Reformed movement that's been popularized recently, whites tend to be preoccupied by its doctrine precisely because it's relatively novel to many of us who are coming out of other theological disciplines.  And Reformed churchgoers are going to critique everything about it, whether it's being preached in a black, or white, or purple-polka-dotted church.

Indeed, much of what Adams describes isn't peculiar to the black experience in white-majority churches.  It's likely very true for Hispanics and Asians in white-majority churches as well, and for whites who visit churches that aren't white-majority.

Let's face it:  Who of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, particularly enjoys accommodating differences?  No matter who we are, we generally prefer homogeneity.  Diversity can be hard work.  It can also be treacherous, if not pursued for the right reasons.  And if other people seem to go overboard trying to accommodate the differences we present, we tend to feel patronized.  Right?

Meanwhile, don't we tend to view church as a safe space for socialization, instead of a sacred space in which anyone can worship our holy Creator?  Maybe your church welcomes people to "come as you are", but you don't really mean that, do you?  Conformity is at least an unwritten rule for virtually any social organization, and these days, church is more social organization than anything else, particularly in the United States.  Singles go to church hoping to find a spouse.  Parents go to church hoping to find a children's program and youth ministry that entertains their kids.  Senior adults go for the nostalgia.  We don't really attend church to be challenged, or be uncomfortable.

Are You Pro-Choice?

I also think we have too many church choices.  Sometimes I suspect seminaries are churning out more graduates than our society needs.  Most of them aren't going overseas to disciple "foreigners"; many stay in the United States, opening their own churches like franchisees of a ministry project, only with their own particular slants, preferences, interpretations, and strategies that church-growth experts like to exploit.

People find it far easier to start their own church when they run into walls of doctrinal conflict within established congregations.  Praying for necessary change - and modeling patient tenacity - seem a lot less efficient, when having your own pulpit is so much quicker.

When I lived in New York City, there weren't the many options for doing evangelical church like there are today.  Crime was high, the city's future seemed bleak, and the deeply-coveted Millennial demographic was just being born.  Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian had gotten started, but it was attracting mostly newcomers from suburbia. 

Back then, in the 1990's, Calvary Baptist Church was the prominent haven for Gotham's native panoply of races and ethnicities; we had homeless people attending, as well as at least one white woman who'd arrive by chauffeur-driven limousine.  It wasn't seamless or perfect, but it worked because, if we wanted to worship God Biblically, we didn't have a lot of other options.  Besides, our purpose for church attendance was more Christ-focused than recreational, since in post-Christian New York, church attendance is hardly a social calling card.

Around the country, however, we relish diversity - as long as that diversity means we have options!  We like choices.  Choosing anything gives us a sense of power and control.  And we know how to maneuver through our maze of choices.  We tend to gravitate towards churches that - whether we realize it or not - present the closest approximation to our ideals, both theologically and culturally.  And if one of our ideals isn't racial diversity, then we're not going to prioritize that when we church-shop.

However, if we had fewer church choices, how much more willing might we be to explore congregations full of people who don't look like us?  How much less important might protecting our own cultural perspective be if we're more eager to find a group of sincere Christ-worshippers than we are eager to find a group of churchgoers who affirm our cultural perspective?

After all, don't the experts say things like racial reconciliation take time?  It's not a process that percolates to fruition over the course of days, weeks, or months.  Isn't it a process that requires relationship-building?  And how long does it take for people who historically haven't shared a lot of common experiences to find common ground and develop deep bonds of trust and affection?

Sure, it would be nice if we could develop such reconciled relationships through sheer convenience and mutual benefit, but perhaps having so many church choices actually works against us in that regard.  Convenience can lead to complacency, and mutual benefit can be relative to the perspectives we hold in our segregated fiefdoms.

And again, all of this is relevant not only to the black - white stratification of American Sundays, but dynamics between rich and poor churchgoers, black and Hispanic churchgoers, Asian and black churchgoers, urban and suburban churchgoers, and every combination in between.

Perhaps, if anything, regardless of our race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, we Christ-followers can at least agree that the era of easy religiosity in the United States has passed.  These days, it's not just the brittle regions of New England, the West Coast, and our biggest cities that have become post-Christian, but much of America's "fly-over country" as well.  Sure, people may attend church, but standards of morality that most church-goers of any skin color or income level used to embrace are becoming less and less tolerated across the board, from Alabama to Wyoming.

Indeed, as times get more desperate for all of us in the United States, things could actually change for the better when it comes to accommodating racial and economic differences in our churches.  Race won't be what divides us, or money, or education, or social status.

After all, when you need the prayer support of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, for whatever hardship you face, does it really matter what they look like, or where they took their last vacation?



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