Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religion And Race

Sunday mornings still largely remain segregated

By Amanda Greene
Staff Writer

Published: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 5:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 11:07 p.m.
Editor's Note: On Nov. 10, 1898, a white mob terrorized Wilmington. They murdered blacks, overthrew the city’s government and burned the black newspaper. Thousands of black citizens fled the city and never returned. To mark the anniversary of this event, the Star-News is publishing a three-part series that digs into issues of race and religion in Wilmington, why 11 a.m. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in the United States and where reconciliation is happening today in the Port City.
Two nondenominational churches – New Beginning Christian Church and The Sanctuary of Wilmington. Each values tithing. Each congregation claps and sings in worship. And each congregation enthusiastically responds to the preaching.

But the main difference in these churches is the people sitting in the pews.
Most of the members of New Beginning Christian Church are black. Most of the members of The Sanctuary are white.

Rev. Robert Campbell preached one recent Sunday at New Beginning about anger and how to avoid letting it take over your life: “Anger is simply one letter away from danger. The devil is trying to tear up some stuff and his weapon of choice is your tongue.”

“Listen, listen,” and “Preach” were the calls from the congregation.

Last weekend, The Sanctuary’s Rev. Daniel Cook spoke about the life of King David: “God doesn’t look upon the outer appearance. He looks at the heart. Somebody say ‘Amen.’ ”

His congregation responded: “Amen” and “That’s right.”

Despite the fact that the United States just elected its first black president. Despite the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. shamed his Christian brethren in 1963 with the words “we must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

Most churches still self-segregate on Sunday mornings.

Choosing to be separate
Nationally, only 8 percent of churches are statistically multiracial, meaning that no one racial-ethnic group constitutes more than 80 percent of the membership, according to the Multiracial Congregations Project. The Rice University study was completed in 2000.

There are churches locally and across the nation that are making an effort to become multiracial. The Rock of Wilmington was founded as a multiracial church. Black and white greeters stand at the church doors to welcome its congregation each Sunday. Its worship team has both black and white musicians.

But the road to becoming a multiracial church isn’t easy, said The Rock’s senior pastor, Rev. Bryan McGee.

“We’ve had people even today who have been shunned by their family for doing so,” he said. Some of his parishioners have told him how their families asked: “Why are you going to that church with the white pastor?” or “You’re going to that church that loves blacks.”

“You really have to believe that this is a God thing,” McGee added, “because people have made sacrifices to come here.”

But their style of blended worship is a rarity in Wilmington.

So why do we still worship separately?

Obviously, there are practical reasons for separate worship such as music preference, preaching styles and worshipping in churches that are closer to our homes.

“It takes real pioneers to get out of their own comfort zone in worship,” Campbell said. “Because even as we’re trying to be a little bit more diverse in our music, most white churches don’t do gospel, and our music is closer to R&B. White churches tend to do the Maranatha-type of praise and worship music. We’re trying to make our music appealing to those we want to attract, but that’s difficult to do without losing our core membership.”

Cesar DeMatta, who is Hispanic, visited some black churches before choosing The Sanctuary because “in the black community, they tend to shout and dance more,” he said. “But I like the preaching here. He speaks with authority.”

Uncomfortable honesty
But the deeper reasons for segregated worship are difficult to talk about because they require an uncomfortable honesty, said Esther Acolatse, assistant professor for pastoral theology at Duke Divinity School. She believes blacks and whites interpret the gospels differently because of their different societal histories in this country. Acolatse, who is from Ghana, attends a majority white Presbyterian church in Durham.

But she believes segregation on Sunday means something different today than it did in the 1960s.

“Today, worshipping separately is both a bad and a good thing. Bad because it gives an impression of disunity. It says that we are first black and second Christian,” Acolatse added. “It’s good in the sense that we get to worship in freedom.”

At St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church, the reasons for that church’s segregated worship extend back to desegregation in the schools. Many in the black community believe the 1968 closing of Williston Senior High School, New Hanover County’s only black high school, was detrimental to the community.

“A community that has given up so much doesn’t want to give up their institutions,” said Rev. William Johnson, pastor at St. Luke. “And the black church is, sadly, one of the last institutions for them.”

Sometimes, people just see what they’re used to as the norm, and that can prevent worshipping in more diverse environments, said Rev. Mike Queen, pastor at First Baptist Church downtown.

“The older the church, sometimes the harder it is to get them (the congregation) to change,” he said. First Baptist turned 200 years old this year. “When there are two First Baptist churches four blocks apart in this city, that should tell you something.”

The Rev. John Veasey, Jr. is the pastor of the majority-black First Baptist – First Baptist Missionary Church.

“People are concentrating more on who they are than on what they can be with others. ... We can contribute to a better society if we can all let go of the hatred of the past,” he said. “And I think this new generation that’s coming up is not breeding hatred and division and are more comfortable with diversity. My generation and older are not that comfortable with that.”

Barbara and Sherwood Miller prayed for a year before leaving their all-black Baptist church to worship at The Rock.

“The only way you can bring about reconciliation is to intermingle in the races,” Sherwood Miller said. “When Jesus comes back, he’s coming back for the church, not denominations. The body, not black or white.”

“As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."

-- The full quote about Sunday segregation from Martin Luther King, Jr., who was speaking at Western Michigan University in 1963

Amanda Greene: 343-2365

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