Late in September 2007 my husband and I, happy newlyweds, set out one Sunday morning to go shopping, church shopping. We liked the thought of walking to church together each Sunday morning so we just picked a place close by. We were immediately welcomed! Everyone noticed our new faces. It was an odd feeling to have every single person want to shake our hands. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be an anonymous “window shopping” style experience. There would be no slipping in, soaking it up, and sliding out.
As the music started, I looked around the sanctuary at the obvious reason to explain how everyone knew we were “newbies.” We were the only two souls in the room wrapped up in white skin.
It was a great service. Worship was incredible! And it felt lovely to be so welcomed. But, darn it, we didn’t feel like we fit.
Our next church on the shopping list was very different. A place I never could’ve imagined liking. A giant warehouse converted to a “mega church” – complete with theater style seating and cup holders. It was super easy to slide in and out unnoticed. This time we left talking about the sermon instead of skin color. We kept going back, and we still do.
The racial makeup of our family is different now. Ten years later and we are a family of five. Our son has a soul in vanilla wrapping, our two girls are wrapped in chocolate-brown.
Something happened recently at church that took me by surprise. I had to step aside to wipe my tears from the sight. I dropped my daughter off in her “Sunday School” room and looked around, noticing that for the first time ever, she was not a “minority” in her church classroom. The racial makeup of her little class reflected the racial diversity of her big city.
Our church had become a place where our whole family “fit.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called 11am on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in this nation,” and called racial segregation in American churches “tragic.” He spoke those words in 1963, how much more tragic is it that this is still so true today?
It is undeniable that racial divisions and segregations are still hurting our nation. That certainly must pain the heart of God. Just as the church was on the front lines of social change in the 1960s, the church ought to be an agent of change today.
Our primarily white mega church didn’t change overnight and it certainly didn’t change by accident. I was paying attention to see intentional and strategic steps taken to try to make all souls feel not just welcomed, but valued. Diversity from the stage, from the podium and the piano came before diversity of the body did. And darker colors of faces on the screens came before souls in seats wrapped in varied shades showed up. A team of called and passionate seekers built a study curriculum to help unite the body and foster conversations that bridge divisions. Minorities (braver than the newlywed version of my husband and I) stuck out, but they stuck around. Others were willing to sacrifice proximity to worship outside of their neighborhoods. The priority was made to value shared leadership over maintaining privilege, and this made for diversity of the body. This body of ours, with time, is growing a closer resemblance to the Kingdom of Heaven than the segregation of America.
Hope is hard. If you’re not uncomfortable with your church’s ethnic status quo… take a hard and critical look. Do you see the whole body? Is it a place where everyone fits? How comfortable are you worshipping under the leadership of a person who looks different from you? If you have discomfort, where do you think it comes from?
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2: 1-4