The segregated pew

Father David Epps's picture

A recent Associated Press article reported that “church pews remain separated by color.” The article stated that the Sunday worship hour is still the most segregated hour in America as a result of the “mentality of self-segregation.”

The reasons are two-fold. First, the writer contends, is the “presence of age-old presumptions before and after the country’s slave era.” The second comes from a “practice of comfort by people who chose to live and worship among similar ethnic backgrounds and styles.”

In other words, the first reason is continuing racism and the second is that people tend to want to be with people just like them.

As a life-long Southerner, I challenge the first premise, especially if one is speaking of overt racism.

I grew up in a segregated society in northeastern Tennessee. Prior to the time I was 15 years old, blacks rode in the back of the bus, were restricted to the balcony in movie theaters, drank from separate public water fountains, and attended separate schools. Black families lived in a certain section of the community and were restricted from attending “white” universities.

In the fall of 1965, the school system was fully integrated and the overt symbols of separation in our community disappeared almost overnight.

Immediately, the athletic teams, cheerleading squads, clubs, and activities were integrated. In our school, unlike in the movie, “Remember the Titans,” all this was achieved with relative ease. The fights, tension, hatred, and name-calling, for the most part, never occurred.

Today, a black man sits on the Supreme Court, a black woman is Secretary of State and a black man is a genuine contender for the presidency of the world’s most powerful country.

While there may be vestiges of latent racism, I find that Southerners have more prejudice against Yankees than they do people of color.

I cannot speak for the prejudices of those in other geographical areas of the country, although I found a near absence of bigotry toward black people during the three years I resided in Colorado.

In the last 20 years, I have yet to encounter white Christians who would be disturbed by blacks and whites attending worship services together. In fact, most who have expressed an opinion, have longed for racial neutrality in their communities of faith. Argument number one, I believe, exists mostly in the minds of those who find it profitable to keep old wounds open.

The second argument,I believe, is more plausible. People do, indeed, tend to be more comfortable with people who are “like them.” Often, this has little to do with color and more to do with culture.

For example, I tend to be socially, theologically, and politically conservative. All things being equal, I am more comfortable carrying on a conversation with someone who is like me, likes me, and agrees with me.

A glance at the church demonstrates the same preferences. One of our church members attends a Bible study at work. Most of the group is from a “baptistic” background. They may not all be Baptists, but they think and hold similar views of Baptists.

Our man often feels awkward during these studies because they think and speak differently from him. He holds a sacramental, “catholic,” charismatic view and would probably be more comfortable if the members of the group thought like him. Certainly, they may see him as a theological and cultural “outsider.”

It takes an effort to cross cultures and make the effort to learn from and live with others whose experiences, backgrounds, and viewpoints differ from ours.

A couple of summers ago, my wife and I vacationed with a couple whose political and social views differ from our own. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience which I would be happy to repeat. I hope we learned from each other but, most importantly, we grew in our appreciation of them as people.

When I served in the Marine Corps, the last 14 months of my tour was spent in a unit in which I was the only white Marine. In the beginning, I was uncomfortable and felt ill at ease, not because they were black, but because we were “different.” Within a short period of time, we were not so different at all and, by the end of my assignment, they were truly my brothers, even though we retained our own individuality.

For the church to become integrated, whites must choose to go to a “black” church and determine to remain there, contributing and learning. Black families must choose to attend “white” churches and be the “first fruits” of those who will come later. Somebody has to make the choice to become a pioneer.

It’s too easy to chalk up the spiritual racial divide to “pre- and post-Civil War perceptions,” blaming the separation on racism.

It’s much more difficult, yet far more profitable, to recognize the differences and diversity yet choose to engage with and share life with people of the “other” race, whatever that might be.

The “problem of the segregated pew” will only be solved by people in the pew who resolve to do something about it.

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Submitted by dollaradayandfound on Fri, 01/26/2007 - 1:10pm.

I don't know what Secretary Rice and Senator Obama have to do with mixing races in the church pews. Politics and religion mix about as well as oil and water.
I also must assume that you speak of Christians only belonging to one church? Otherwise each group of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, African Black churches, etc., would have to sit in a different corner (need a 1000-sided church) wouldn't they?
Charismatics turn off Presbyterians about as much as Sunnis do Shiites.
Now, if you mean they are welcome to sit in occasionally, I understand.

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