One of my first posts was a response pertaining to Van Biema’s The Color of Faith where he covered integration in the megachurch, and rallied for future integration in the church in general. 

What Van Biema does not talk about is why certain races may need their own church.  One of my future professors gave me a talk about the history of the black church and the impact it has on him and his family.  For the African American, the black church is the only institution they founded on their own in the United States, and is thus a source of pride to them.  Reverend Richard Allen, in 1816, started the AME Church after he was pushed out of a white church for sitting in the front pew.  He started preaching at the blacksmith’s shop, later founding the AME Church and stressing the importance of education and literacy, as well as opening the church to people of all races,  African Americans and all others.

My professor told me that his children attend primarily Caucasian schools, and one of his concerns is that he does not want them to lose touch with the African American community, especially in a nation that increasingly teaches his children not to act like African Americans.  When his children eventually enter the real world, his desire is that they not only to be aware of their heritage but to also feel comfortable in the African American society.

I read an article in Baltimore written by an African American poli-sci professor in Johns Hopkins.  He wrote about the exhausting work of “navigating white spaces” where he had to be doubly concious of how he acted, talked, and how his children behaved out in public.  But when he was with other African Americans, he wrote that he could “breathe” and “be himself.”   

This is not to encourage in any way for different races to stay in their respective cubicles.  I just wanted to take the time to share that for some, their church and communities are a haven where they can belong without the pressure of having to act different to be accepted. 

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image taken from New York Times, Jessica Kourkounis/Associated Press

Caption: Members of the Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest, Saturday night at the first service in their new home. 

In their latest issue, Time magazine’s David van Biema published an article entitled “The Color of Faith: Sunday Morning Remains the Most Segregated Time in America.  How Some Evangelicals are Bridging the Divide.”  Van Biema, through investigating the history of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, finds that although megachurches are slowly becoming more diverse, such diversity  is not attained passively — rather, the congregation of Willow Creek worked through “racial-educational” small group conferences and a change of philosophy on the part of the pastor to bridge the racial divide bit by bit.  In spite of these efforts, writes Van Biema, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”

 Though Van Biema’s article is insightful, I felt that there were some points worth mentioning that he either only touched upon or ignored completely.  For one, unlike the apartheid era, religious segregation between races is one made today by choice

What are the factors that lead to this?  The most obvious factor is probably language.  For example, many Asian churches  preach in their own language, as many in the congregation are more familiar with their native language, or are first-generationers from their homeland. 

Less obvious is how religion, in the past, functioned in their community.  Take, for example, how differently the white and black communities used religion during apartheid era.  The white community often used religion to strengthen racial boundaries.  It was God’s will, they claimed, that the white race had the right to rule over and exploit the lands of the “lesser civilized.”  Missionaries teamed up with trading companies and settler groups in foreign lands.  While they introduced essential concepts such as reading and writing, there remained, for most, a hidden agenda to aid the trader companies in occupation of the land.  On the other hand, the African American community used religion as a pulpit to preach about their equal rights.  As segregation affected and shaped their everyday lives, forcing them to undergo the poorest of educational and labor conditions, churches started to fight back.  It was not God’s will, they proclaimed, that they should continue to live in such a pitiful state.  They took to heart Paul’s words that in Christ, there was no Jew or Gentile, male or female, master or slave.  Protest groups mobilized from the church, usually advocating protest through non-violence.  It is a hypothesis but the different roles each race assigned to religion planted the seeds for the schism that lingers today, and the use of religion as a tool of oppression on the part of the white community still unfortunately harms its reputation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, each race has its distinct worship style.  Simply congregating different races under one church roof does not make it a successful interracial church.  In order provide an atmosphere conducive to all, the worship style has to somehow accomodate and compromise a different style if churches truly seek to become interracial.  Thus far, I have attended Korean Presbytarian churches, American churches, and currently worship with an African American congregation (for personal reasons that I may divulge at a later time).  I have observed Catholic, Methodist, Luteran, Presbytarian, and Unitarian services — in large part due to my touring around different churches with my girl’s choir back in the days I used to sing (eons ago).  I’ve noticed that even within churches of the same ethnicity, there exists the subcategories that separate them from each other — conservative views on abortion and homosexuality, more liberal outtakes on societal issues, traditional versus modern worship, differences in how elders are appointed, differences in sermon styles.  This plays out to be more than just a mere racial schism — there exists a philosophical schism and a style schism, causing each church to have its own distinct atmosphere.  

There is a sense of freedom in the African American congregation that I have not yet experienced in Korean or American congregations.  During the sermon, for instance, it is not out of place to openly encourage the pastor — as many congregants do by applause, standing on one’s feet to wave arms, etc.  There is a sense of reciprocity in energy, a sense of involvement.  When the choir sings, congregation members often rise to their feet with accompanying accolades of “Sing it, boy!” or “Sing it, girl!”   This — not only the history of how they used religion to overcome — helps give the African American congregation a strong, united sense of community that I have not experienced elsewhere.

By contrast in the older generation Korean worship, any noise or cheering could potentially be taken as a sign of disrespect.  The intensity with which Koreans worship can date back before they were even introduced to Christ.  The original Korean monotheistic Sun god religion was very similar to that of Christianity, with emphasis on “repent or go to hell.”  This served to make the transition smooth between their original religion and Christianity (unlike in Japan, where they had a polytheistic religion).

In the African American church I attend, many — not all, but many — of the families are currently, amidst this recession, suffering financially, a few of them having lost their jobs.  When worshipping, there is a deep sense of hope amid the burden — the feeling that they must believe in something that provides hope.  In the American churches I’ve attended, I have not yet experienced this feeling.  There is a comfortability that pervades the atmosphere, as many of those in attendance are in the middle to upper class and do not need to worry where their meals are coming from. 

The question is, for all these differences — music, style, history, philosophy — where is the middle ground?  I personally have no answer to offer as to whether one day America’s churches will all be interracial, despite the US not containing any dominant race group by 2050.  But for now, churches remained segregated — and it is done out of choice (and oftentimes necessity).  What is perhaps more important than having a racially diverse congregation is the ability of a church to truly and sincerely welcome its visitors despite their ethnicity.  Even as a Korean American, my family and I often undergo some embarrassing treatment (well-meaning, but embarrassing) from some congregational members who automatically assume that we don’t speak English or would like to give us a “welcome to the States” when we’ve lived here for over 23 years and can speak English perfectly fine.  Being more tactful, I believe, when it comes to welcoming members of the congregation who are of a different ethnicity, is a babystep into forging multiracial churches, but it is a gigantic babystep that needs to be conquered if progress is to be made.