Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide The number of multiracial churches is growing in the United States, but the leaders of color who work in them still see attitudes of white supremacy.
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Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

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Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As America turns its attention to the work of overcoming racial injustice, the role of churches in that effort comes into focus. Christianity in this country at times has accommodated racism rather than opposing it. And some efforts by churches to promote reconciliation have run into obstacles. NPR's Tom Gjelten has one such story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In April 2018, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a megachurch pastor from Dallas named Matt Chandler spoke at a conference of evangelicals. His topic - the troubles he had getting his congregation to consider issues of race.

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MATT CHANDLER: It is a predominantly white congregation situated in a place where, more than likely, we will always be predominantly white. I don't...

GJELTEN: In remarkably candid remarks, Chandler shared how, if he talked about justice in biblical times, no problem.

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CHANDLER: But if I applied it to race, then all a sudden, I was a Marxist or I'd been watching too much of the liberal media. If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous and a ferocious man of God. And yet when I would tackle race, I was being too political.

GJELTEN: On that day, Chandler's comments resonated with other pastors who have struggled to make their congregations more aware of racism. So what can pastors do? One idea is to promote multiracial worship, congregations with people of different backgrounds coming together. It's actually become a movement with a godfather of sorts, sociologist Michael Emerson. He's written two books on it, "Divided By Faith" and "United By Faith." The key to building a multiracial congregation, Emerson argues, is to do it intentionally, deliberately.

MICHAEL EMERSON: You put it into your mission statement. You think about who is up on the platform during worship. You think about the artwork and the books you're using and the music you're playing.

GJELTEN: One pastor Emerson inspired is Randal Lyle at Meadowridge Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

RANDAL LYLE: Let me lead all of us together in prayer this morning.

GJELTEN: Lyle's decision to broaden his previously all-white membership came after his youth minister reached out to some young men playing basketball nearby and invited them to come to church.

LYLE: Most of these were African American young men from our neighborhood. And that young man told him - said, I'm not going there; that's a white church.

GJELTEN: Lyle, who's white, took the comment to heart.

LYLE: Our church was probably like most where we'd say we'd welcome anybody who wants to come here. But what we meant was as long as they do things exactly how we do them.

GJELTEN: Over the next few years, Lyle and his staff followed the Michael Emerson formula. They changed the sign out front to say, all races united in Christ. They changed the church decor, and they livened up the worship.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Halle (ph), halle, hallelujah. Halle, halle, hallelujah.

GJELTEN: The church now has its own band. The members all wear a mask these days. They social distance onstage and play to an empty sanctuary, but they still make music.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Your name, your name. Halle, halle, hallelujah.

GJELTEN: The effort has been pretty successful. African Americans now make up about a third of the Meadowridge membership, and the number of Latino members is growing.

Myrtle Lee switched to Meadowridge from the Black church she had previously attended.

MYRTLE LEE: I needed a different experience - worship experience. And I wanted to worship with everybody that I work with. I work with not just predominately Black people. So I wanted to go to church with those same type of people.

GJELTEN: Her sister Cecilia Rhodes, who came along, says it took a while to feel comfortable in what was still a largely white church.

CECILIA RHODES: Well, sometimes there was stares.

GJELTEN: Stares - people staring at you.

RHODES: People staring, looking at you kind of strangely. And then I just made it my mission to hug. So I started hugging people.

GJELTEN: So does this approach make a difference? I asked Myrtle Lee whether multiracial churches are catching on in Fort Worth or is Meadowridge Baptist a rare exception?

LEE: I would love to say it's not rare. I would love to say that, but I think it is.

GJELTEN: I took this question to others. In Montgomery, Ala., I sat down with Keith Moore, a Black pastor who works closely with local white pastors. He thinks some African American Christians are reluctant to move to churches with a diverse makeup.

KEITH MOORE: You have to abandon some of your ethnic culture and become more palatable to the majority-white culture, give up some of the old traditional African American experience in order to fit in. So there is a sacrifice.

GJELTEN: As for whites joining a church led by a Black pastor, even more unlikely, he says.

MOORE: Where you see both African American and Caucasian Americans, it's not going to be led by an African American pastor. It's more than likely going to have a Caucasian pastor.

GJELTEN: Why is that?

MOORE: I think it's sometimes more difficult for whites to look at a Black pastor and see him as their authority.

GJELTEN: In Columbus, Ohio, Korie Little Edwards moved from a Black church to a multiracial church about 15 years ago because she was looking for a congregation committed to racial equality. Little Edwards is a sociologist of religion at The Ohio State University, but her interest was personal.

KORIE LITTLE EDWARDS: I had bumped into someone who said, well, hey, I go to this multiracial church, and it's down here in the city. And why don't you check it out? And I thought, well, yeah, why not? This will be really great.

GJELTEN: That church experience spurred her to look at multiracial churches professionally as a sociologist to see whether they could help break down racism. Her research, on top of her own experience, left her skeptical.

LITTLE EDWARDS: I came to a point where I realized that, you know, these multiracial churches - just because they're multiracial doesn't mean they've somehow escaped white supremacy. Being diverse doesn't mean that white people are not going to still be in charge and run things.

GJELTEN: In a book Little Edwards wrote on the continuing power of race in multiracial churches, she argues that people of color often lose out and are left in pain.

LITTLE EDWARDS: Not feeling like they're accepted for who they are, not being able to be themselves.

GJELTEN: For example, she says, feeling pressure to dress more casually than they were used to. And it goes beyond style, Little Edwards says. Black people in a multiracial congregation may feel reluctant to push for a leadership role and settle instead for a visible or symbolic position as a greeter or a musician.

LITTLE EDWARDS: What's at work here is the power of whiteness. And what whiteness says is that people who are white are understood to be dominant and are understood to be in charge.

GJELTEN: In fact, the godfather of the multiracial church movement, Michael Emerson, has now independently come to the same conclusion. He is just concluding a two-year updated study of the movement, going back to church leaders he had met earlier to see how things are going. Not well, he found.

EMERSON: For the leaders of color who were trying to create the multiracial church movement, they're basically saying it doesn't work. The white brothers and sisters just won't give up their privilege. And so we have been defeated, in a sense.

GJELTEN: In a poll on religion and race by NPR and the research firm Ipsos, fewer than half of African Americans surveyed said they think race relations would improve if people worshipped in multiracial churches. But Korie Little Edwards says churches do have a role in supporting racial justice.

LITTLE EDWARDS: I would argue that the goal shouldn't be diversity, that rather, all churches are called to be places of justice, uplifting the oppressed. That is what the Christian faith is.

GJELTEN: The proper focus for every church, Little Edwards says, no matter its racial composition.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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