You’ve likely heard the saying, “Sunday mornings are the most segregated day in America.” It refers to the stark divide of church membership among racial lines. I grew up in the Black Church, though none of the churches I attended as a child expressly identified as part of that culture. In fact, our leaders always seemed pretty elated when a white visitor stopped by. We’d court multicultural membership and many a sermon was preached about preparing for an influx of souls that “didn’t look like us.”
But mostly, the color of our congregation remained monochrome. And, when I grew up, I left it. As many twenty-somethings do, I took some time off from the three-to-four-day-a-week church service regimen with which I’d been raised and just sat alone with my beliefs for a while, recalling, reassessing, rejecting, and eventually, reaffirming them. I visited here and there, landing in a truly multicultural church for a time, with a white pastor and congregants from many nations.
I stopped attending there when I noticed the pastor’s penchant for joking at other cultures’ expense during his sermons.
There’s a reason Sundays are segregated. Several, actually. The cultural composition of the American church runs parallel with the history of race relations in this country. Though the church wants to be a pioneering model for racial reconciliation, that proves an uphill battle in a country where masters wouldn’t allow their slaves to read the bible they wanted them to obey.
That irony lingers in my mind at the church I’ve been attending for the past month. Not only is it Episcopal–a big enough departure for someone who was raised Charismatic/Pentecostal, it’s also almost all white. A small fellowship with about 60 members, it provides a quiet, loving, ritual-based worship that meshes well with what I want in a church experience.
But that doesn’t make me feel any less like a fish out of water. One of the greatest things about the Black Church is the freedom you feel to voice your frustrations–even and at times, especially, those related to racial injustice–and hear them echoed in the spirituals and sermons. It’s a place where you’re afforded a kind of cultural shorthand; the brothers and sisters know what you’re going through. There’s no burden to explain your idiom, your music, and your struggles. And, at least for a few hours a week, you can take a break from the laborious task of code-switching. In short, you don’t have to use your “work voice.”
Here, I do. But for me, right now, it’s a necessary tradeoff.
Last Sunday, one of the priests made an announcement about remembering to pray for racial healing in Sanford, FL, site of the murder of Trayvon Martin. It was the first I’d heard about the case since my arrival. It was heartening to know that the issues that consume my daily life as a black woman may not go entirely unacknowledged at a predominantly white church. It sparks a hope I’d allowed to grow dim that race relations can and will improve, if we don’t avoid voluntarily entering spaces where we’re in a small minority and building relationships there that foster cultural diversity in worship.