Worship Across the Racial Divide: An Interview with Gerardo Marti

Paul Harvey

Editor's Note: In spite of what I said yesterday, we'll be posting during spring break after all, leading to our "Faces and Places of Jesus" series beginning on Friday. I'm pleased to post this interview with  our blog contributor Gerardo Marti, author of the new book Worship Across the Racial Divide, which I previously blogged about here. A sociologist by training, Gerardo reflects below on sociological and historical approaches to the study of religion. Part I of this interview is today; Part II will go up tomorrow. 

PH: Gerardo, talk about the process that led you to this book, from initial conceptualization to final product. How did you come up with some of the basic questions that you address in this book?

GERARDO: In my first two ethnographies of A Mosaic of Believers and Hollywood Faith, it appeared that people stayed in congregations that reflected their musical tastes and desires. More importantly, church leaders believed music to be critical, and they corralled their worship directors and key leaders to focus deliberate attention on the construction and performance of music in hopes of attracting and keeping diverse congregants.

Yet I found problems every time church leaders made “common sense” connections between race and music. Like during a summer seminar at Calvin College in 2006—a music director of a fairly large church talked openly about the immense pressure he experienced to become more “multicultural” in worship. He was told, “We need to become ‘blacker.’” In pursuit of what he called a “quick fix” he introduced gospel choir music with a few Negro spirituals “thrown in.” The almost entirely white congregation thought the music as “cool” saying that it had “a great beat” and even prompted some reflection on what it meant to hear music that expressed survival and liberation, yet the “quick fix” approach ended up reinforcing stereotypes of what African Americans are “supposed to be” overall. The “black music” intended to expand diversity effectively deepened racial divides already embedded.

Grant funding from the Louisville Institute and the Congregational StudiesTeam allowed me to pursue a focused analysis of musical liturgy in successfully diverse congregations. I was interested in how music and worship “work” in multiracial churches. The new research centered around two questions: Could religious music be the gateway for stimulating integrated congregations? Or do the structures of musical liturgy provide yet another opportunity to maintain the racial divide – even in the midst of “successful” racial integration?

Most of the contributors to my blog are historians by training; you are a sociologist by training. Talk about what you think historians can learn/need to learn from sociologists, and (if such a thing exists) a work that combines the two disciplinary methods most fruitfully?

I get most excited when I read the work of American religious historians who provide immersive narratives that draw out the contingent construction of institutions and ideational structures comprising our contemporary world. Perhaps the best book I read for this analysis was Curtis Evans’ The Burden of Black Religion, a text I quote excessively because it provided such crucial background for the discursive themes of African Americans as “superior worshipers.” This is certainly not the only book I read. I was fairly ambitious in the attempt to address race, church, and music under an initially vague notion of “worship,” and I drew from many astounding works of historians to enlighten and guide my vantage point, especially to remove any “presentist” bias and to uncover what has been significant in the past to suggest what may continue to be significant for our future. The final word count of the printed book came to roughly 100,000 words, yet my first full draft contained nearly 150,000, and it could have been much longer! While few made it into the text, they still feed my current scholarship.

On connecting our two disciplines, I don’t know if a full integration of sociology and history is possible. The array of evolving methodological tools can be confusing, the ongoing development/critique of theoretical frameworks hard to keep up with, and the sensitivities inherent to each are difficult to master. For me, the pragmatic consideration of sociological work is constrained to articulating concrete mechanisms of social life in the arena under investigation. My academic work is done while simultaneously attending to clear research questions, a self-conscious use of conceptual frameworks, and attentiveness to methodologically sound processes of investigation. Figuring this out takes a lot of time; writing all this up takes up a lot of room. So I find little time and ability to adequately follow all the issues and debates among my colleagues in history.

On the other hand, I find that historians and others frequently come across intriguing sociological findings that reveal previously ignored dynamics. Ultimately, sociologists like myself attempt to draw out a complex of social structures and seek to produce heuristic insights. Sometimes our results are more “factual” in orientation; other times more “theoretical.” Either way, historians could use such work as a provocative source of enrichment for their own investigations.

You write that "the diversification of churches is not about racially accommodating distinct music styles or enacting simplistic notions of leadership intentionality, but rather about stimulating cross-racial interaction through music worship practices." What is it about music in worship that holds such a key to the successful creation of multiracial churches?

I thought I might come to grasp something of the emotional power of sacred music, how music “tugs at the heart,” “lifts the human spirit,” and “transcends our earthly concerns” by “stirring the passions” of a crowd. Music would be “soothing,” “inspiring,” or just plain “worshipful,” and the experience of music would create a profound human connection. Once I began my research, what stood out was a fundamental belief that only certain music connects with certain racial and ethnic groups. Leaders select worship music that incorporates “diversity friendly” musical influences such as “gospel” and “salsa” to “spice up” their music. Like a chef preparing a musical casserole, worship leaders in multiracial churches invoke a musical pluralism to promote a buffet style of musical genres with crossover appeal.

The key finding described at length in the book is that multiracial churches aggressively recruit (and sometimes pay) people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to be featured in public worship. Beliefs of racial authenticity drive musical performance such that diverse churches ironically reproduce notions of racial and ethnic differences at the same time they try to eliminate them.

Despite such racialized tactics, a connection is forged between diverse performers and the congregational “audience.” Singers may be off-key, but the choir provides a place of belonging and sacred connection. The occasional dissonant chord of the pianist and the ill-placed harmonies of vocalist connect fellow church members who serve with reverence and a sense of duty on behalf of the people gathered in that place. And it’s not just the “performances” but the “rehearsals.” Diverse members may only see each other a few hours each week, but these members come to know each other and have surprisingly deep relationships with each other. 


Curtis J. Evans said…
Excellent interview. Looking forward to the second part. Lots to think about, especially in response to questions about how historians and sociologists can learn from each others' work. I'm now eager to read Gerardo's book.
Edward J. Blum said…
I've learned so much from Marti's other books. Can't wait to read this one!
Randall said…
Very interesting interview. Thanks for posting this.

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