Worship Across the Racial Divide: Part II of Interview with Gerardo Marti

I'm pleased today to post Part II of our interview with Gerardo Marti about his new book Worship Across the Racial Divide. Part I of the interview is here.

Many of the people you interview in your book kind of innocently reproduce what scholars would call notions of racial essentialism -- black people as essentially more "spiritual" than others, for example, obviously an old trope in American religion. Is there a way in which racial diversity in churches, if anything, tends to strengthen these kinds of views, or do they break them down?

Across all churches and all of the interviews, there exists an overarching belief that the best kind of worship orients around a universally idealized image of Blacks singing gospel. African Americans are universally believed to experience authentic worship more profoundly than any other racial-ethnic group. Superior worship is a racialized “gift” that comes from “suffering” and imparts their music with the character of “soul.” And gospel music is believed to be the only legitimate form of musical expression since it preserves a racial heritage and is rooted (in their minds) the suffering and oppression experienced by blacks.

Even when diverse congregations have proportionally more non-whites than whites (nine of the twelve congregations), the pursuit of differences is consistently marked in terms of more “blacks,” more “Hispanics,” and sometimes more “Asians.” Racialized stigmas attach to different ethnic and racial groups with respect to preferred styles of music and worship, and these notions are not evenly distributed. The agenda of “diversity” means that it becomes a publicly defined goal. In my observation, the pursuit of “diversity” becomes centered mostly on blacks, and “black music” emerges as a priority. A key vehicle becomes forming an “inspiration” or “gospel” choir. Gospel choirs take a privileged role in diverse churches. The question, “Have you seen our gospel choir?” becomes a point of pride, an indication that the church is firmly committed to the principle of diversity
In short, the goal of diversification in the American church appears to be accentuating notions of racial essentialism rather than removing them.

One of the subheadings in the book is "Worship Leaders Carry the Burden of Diversity." Tell us basically what you mean by that important concept.

By their position, whether paid or volunteer, worship leaders, music directors, and church musicians who design liturgical processes bear much of the weight for the perceived corrections and visionary expectations for diversification. They carry out the mandates of pastors and the (often capricious) desires of congregants in the way each believe they should be accomplished. Worship leaders are given broad, “visionary” imperatives without specific direction of how to fulfill them. They implement ill-conceived diversity efforts with little support, no training, and often only obligatory enthusiasm. Even the best-trained musicians do not have the versatility to switch musical styles quickly, repeatedly, and with variety, in addition to being able to recruit, lead, and conduct less-trained volunteers who are often expected to come from various ancestral backgrounds and play multiple musical genres. Worship leaders are not prepared for issues of diversity.

Since lead pastors cannot expect the attendance of a congregation to further diversify overnight, the weight of evaluation comes in assessing the “sound” of the music. Mandated diversity through music coupled with unclear standards of assessment leaves worship pastors scrambling to clearly show diverse musical styles in a way that their lead pastors will recognize as diverse. That leads to recruitment on the basis of “conspicuous color” and the introduction of highly stereotyped “ethnic” music, especially “black” music. Even the often-discussed solution of hiring a black worship leader sidesteps more serious considerations. In fact, black worship pastors—operating as unofficial “diversity officers” of the congregation—may be the most burdened of all.

In their book DIVIDED BY FAITH, Emerson and Christian Smith provide a very skeptical argument about whether white Christians can understand the structural mechanisms which reproduce racial inequality in American society. Do you agree with their assessment? And can racially diverse churches do much about that if they indeed reproduce the individualistic theology which Emerson and Smith see as being behind white Christians' failure to understand this fundamental issue?

Divided by FaithReligion as an abstract social force is not capable of eliminating racial divisions, yet particular elements of religious life can be and certainly are used as tools to accomplish specific religious imperatives. Despite reinforcing ethnic and racial differences through assumptions and stereotypes, my own work reveals how churches indeed do–often inadvertently–promote racial diversity in their churches. Multiracial churches structure for diversity in ways that actualize the racial and ethnic integration of their ministries, but not in ways they intend.

Diversity happens because members are more likely to stay in a congregation if they find ways of being involved and feeling connected with others in the church. The music ministries of a congregation demand a considerable amount of planning and preparation. As diversely recruited members become involved in the musical ministries of their church, they do not necessarily see themselves as working to diversify their congregations, but they do see themselves as contributing to their church. And by being part of their church, they succeed in accentuating the diversity of their church through their involvements. They place themselves in a position to know and be known by others, so recognizability and relationships between people through music are more important than the acoustic sound.

In short, diversity happens—even without the intention to diversify—because music and worship create practical spaces of interaction where cross-racial bonds are formed. Through participation in worship music of the services (both in following direction and hearing performances) members come to feel connected to each other and are supportive of each other as part of the same “church family.”

Very briefly and concisely, what is the most important take-away point that you hope readers will get from your book?

It’s ironic -- beliefs of racial authenticity and performance promote profound assumptions of racial difference; however, such beliefs simultaneously drive the imperative to include people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds into worship ministry structures. The active incorporation of diverse people in the performance of worship music creates structured opportunities for the creation of genuine community. In the end, the musical liturgy of a church is a strategic mechanism for putting conspicuously diverse people in public, deliberate, and cooperative interaction with other members in a congregation. 


Curtis J. Evans at: March 28, 2012 at 8:43 PM said...

What I find striking about Marti's discussion of a universalized image of black gospel and authenticity is a somewhat similar phenomenon in my research on race relations Sundays (by the FCC). While one key part of these Sundays was a black pastor preaching at a white church and a white pastor at a black church, one of the most celebrated events was the black choir, though in the context of the 1920s "spirituals" represented the "souls" of black folk. The FCC also sought to showcase spirituals by highlighting as the central contribution of blacks to American culture. What is ironic is that though indeed much of this work reinforced notions of racial essentialism, it did bring to a broader public elements of African American religious life in a mostly respectful manner. And the race relations Sundays were (by expressed intent) attempts to create positive moments and experiences (ephemeral as they were) between blacks and whites. I am really fascinated at how Marti's comments demonstrate the remarkable tenacity of certain notions or inchoate fantasies about racial authenticity.

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