I read an article a couple of days ago detailing a sermon giving by a white pastor on MLK day(his race is significant to this), decrying the fact that so many years after King, my denomination (Adventist) still has racially segregated conferences. Conferences are how the denomination organises groups of churches, and currently in the U.S there are state conferences and ‘regional’ (black) conferences.
In his sermon, Dwight Nelson said “With American society racially fragmenting in front of our eyes, how persuasive is church organization that depends on ‘separate but equal’ still, when the nation long ago abandoned it? How can we appeal to a fragmented society on the basis of love when we ourselves are fragmented?”.
I somewhat agree with that statement. The body of Christ cannot represent the love of Christ accurately to the world when the body parts refuse to work together.
In England, our churches are segregated too, just not officially. The white churches are segregated from the black churches, and within the black churches there is segregation amongst different cultural groups ( although you are more likely to find a church with a mixture of different black groups than you are to find a church that is racially mixed).
Churches such as London Ghana, are quite obviously named in a way that is assertively separatist. The idea of reaching a local non-Ghanaian community with the gospel, when the church is called “London Ghana” and the services are in Twi, frankly, puzzles me.
However, it would be unfair for me to speak of London Ghana as if it is the only church that is separatist. There are Filipino churches. There are Brazilian churches. Many of the ‘white’ churches in the UK are predominately white because when my Grandparent’s generation first came to England, the indigenous British people refused to worship with them, and participated in a polite, Christian version of white flight and racism. Caribbeans are not wholly innocent – there have been cases where we have been resistant to our African brothers and sisters joining churches in large numbers, and where both groups have separated themselves along country lines. None of it is good enough.
So while I agree with Pastor Nelson’s statement, I don’t agree with his solution. Churches in America and the UK are segregated because communities are segregated. Because friendship groups are segregated.
Forcing people who mostly socialise with people who look like them, to worship with groups of people they tend to avoid socially, once a week, isn’t going to work.
White Adventists and other white Christians need to address the racism (both individual and institutional) that they uphold through their stereotypes, behaviour patterns and sub conscious beliefs, before they can ever have a hope in heaven of successfully integrating with black and other non-white Adventists. You can’t pop up at church once a week to participate in some lively gospel music, while at the same time defending systems and institutions that oppress black people.
Additionally, the institutional racism in the church makes some black people naturally suspicious of any moves to integrate conferences. Who will be the leaders of these new ‘integrated’ conferences? Unfortunately, history suggests that it’s highly unlikely that it will be brown faces in the most prominent leadership positions. While I don’t feel like clamouring for leadership should be at the forefront of our minds, too often, white people have used the call to ‘humility’ central to Christianity to effectively oppress black Christians. Black churches have always held a powerful role in the black community in terms of being bases for political action and support for an oppressed community. It’s very easy for white people, who have the privilege of not being subjected to the daily demoralising influence of racism, to demand that black churches integrate with them, without any thought to what effect that will have on the community.
There is a need to be sensitive to the fact that church, for many people is a place of comfort after a stressful week. It is a place where we can feel safe and loved and at home. For many of the people who attend London Ghana, forexample, I can imagine that those hours at church form an important part of bonding with their community that they might not get as a minority group in a country that isn’t entirely favourable to them. In the same way, many black people may feel that being surrounded by their own once a week is a ‘safe place’ where they can be themselves without the hyper-awareness that comes from being in predominately white environments.
Do I want to spend my Sabbath being subject to the same micro-aggressions and racial stereotypes that I am subject to in the workplace? No, not really, is the answer. I would be lying if I said that I care about the fact that the majority of churches I attend have very few white people. But I probably should care.
Because I understand that part of the work of the gospel is to transcend the barriers of race. I want this to happen. I believe that this can happen in the church, even if it can’t anywhere else.
What we need though, is not enforced desegregation of churches, but for the racism that is present in the hearts of many white Adventists, and the prejudices between different cultural groups, both black and white, to be eradicated by a saving relationship with Jesus and by frank, open and honest conversations about the continuing legacy of racism in our church and in our society.