Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Religion and Race Fatigue


With all the euphoria regarding the alleged "post-racial" era that America is entering (at least according to some folks), this recent piece from CNN about race and the churches suggests otherwise. It seems that some actually prefer their Sunday mornings segregated:

(CNN) -- The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.

They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church's newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of "them" tried to join their church?

"One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover," says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.

The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church's newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.

Americans may be poised to nominate a black man to run for president, but it's segregation as usual in U.S. churches, according to the scholars. Only about 5 percent of the nation's churches are racially integrated, and half of them are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white, says Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of "United by Faith," a book that examines interracial churches in the United States.

DeYoung's numbers are backed by other scholars who've done similar research. They say integrated churches are rare because attending one is like tiptoeing through a racial minefield. Just like in society, racial tensions in the church can erupt over everything from sharing power to interracial dating.

DeYoung, who is also an ordained minister, once led an interracial congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that eventually went all-black. He defines an interracial church as one in which at least 20 percent its membership belongs to a racial group other than that church's largest racial group.

"I left after five years," DeYoung says. "I was worn out from the battles."

The men and women who remain and lead interracial churches often operate like presidential candidates. They say they live with the constant anxiety of knowing that an innocuous comment or gesture can easily mushroom into a crisis that threatens their support. Poll: Race and religion in America »

"It's not all 'Kumbaya' and 'We are the World,' " says Sheppard, the pastor of the Northern California church, who was raised by his father, a Baptist preacher, in the black church. "There are plenty of skirmishes." (Read all about it here)

What I took away from this piece is that for many people, their churches are a refuge from having to deal with either experiencing racism or being accused of being racist or (gasp!) keeping their kids from dating interracially. Some of the people you hear from in this article sound exhausted from the "battles" and "skirmishes". In a word they are suffering from what could be called "race-fatigue". From a Baha'i perspective, the remedy to race-fatigue is something that is found in abundance at church, the love of God:

"One of the important questions which affect the unity and the solidarity of mankind is the fellowship and equality of the white and colored races. Between these two races certain points of agreement and points of distinction exist which warrant just and mutual consideration. The points of contact are many; for in the material or physical plane of being, both are constituted alike and exist under the same law of growth and bodily development. Furthermore, both live and move in the plane of the senses and are endowed with human intelligence. There are many other mutual qualifications. In this country, the United States of America, patriotism is common to both races; all have equal rights to citizenship, speak one language, receive the blessings of the same civilization, and follow the precepts of the same religion. In fact numerous points of partnership and agreement exist between the two races; whereas the one point of distinction is that of color. Shall this, the least of all distinctions, be allowed to separate you as races and individuals? In physical bodies, in the law of growth, in sense endowment, intelligence, patriotism, language, citizenship, civilization and religion you are one and the same. A single point of distinction exists -- that of racial color. God is not pleased with -- neither should any reasonable or intelligent man be willing to recognize -- inequality in the races because of this distinction. But there is need of a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That irresistible power is the love of God."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 67)

The love of God, this 'irrestiable power' is much stronger than the feeble and foolish human construct of race. I have to actually believe that though and act accordingly in my life.

"Nothing is impossible to the Divine Benevolence of God. If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. Do not despair! Work steadily. Sincerity and love will conquer hate. How many seemingly impossible events are coming to pass in these days! Set your faces steadily towards the Light of the World. Show love to all; 'Love is the breath of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Man'. Take courage! God never forsakes His children who strive and work and pray! Let your hearts be filled with the strenuous desire that tranquillity and harmony may encircle all this warring world. So will success crown your efforts, and with the universal brotherhood will come the Kingdom of God in peace and goodwill."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 29)

It's way past time to take the segregation out of Sunday mornings in America. I believe that we can. Do you?