Race at Church

By Karen Johnson. 

The intersection of race, religion, and power is a significant one in American history - and today.  Interracial churches are, for the most part, few and far between.  In my last post I discussed teaching white students about race experientially, by putting them in a situation in which they are a minority.  Those students also had the opportunity to talk about race openly and honestly with black and white people from Rock Church who are comfortable with the issues.  Rock Church is located in a predominantly black inner-city neighborhood in Chicago and is an interracial church.  I'd like to follow the lead of the work done with those students - and being done at Rock - and open up a discussion on interracial churches (the following is admittedly about black/white churches.  Race is clearly much more than that).

Doing church interracially can be hard.  Using research she did on a church made up of black and white members, sociologist Korie Edwards, for instance, has argued that in order for a church to remain interracial, the black members have to give up their expectations about what church should look like in order to appease the white members.  In other words, white hegemony reigns supreme.  In my own research on Catholic interracial organizations like the Federated Colored Catholics and Friendship House, I've seen a similar struggle.  The white and black partners struggle over how to distribute power - and often the white people want to lead the way and set the agenda.

But it doesn't always have to be that way.  I think that Rock is a great example of an interracial church in which white hegemony does not reign supreme.  One thing Rock Church used to do was "fudge-ripple meetings" in which black people (or fudge folks)  and white people (or vanilla folks) met separately to discuss a topic and then came together (fudge-ripple) to discuss it. The rule was that a person could not leave the fudge-ripple meeting and then talk with another fudge or another vanilla about their experiences. Black people know how to talk with other black people about white people, and white people know how to talk about black people with other white people.  The church wanted to avoid that sort of behavior and foster open, honest - and often hard and frank - communication across racial lines.  (For more an autobiographical history of racial reconciliation at Rock, see Glen Kehrein's and Raleigh Washington's Breaking Down Walls).

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argued in Divided by Faith that the vast majority of white evangelicals who talk about racial reconciliation put no meat behind their arguments.  That is, they do not - and indeed seem unable to - acknowledge structural sources of inequality in society and are unwilling to divest themselves of power.  Rock Church is different, and represents well Emerson's argument that white people living interracially are able to see structures limiting black access to power - like their black counterparts.  The history of the organization is full of examples.  Circle Urban Ministries, the non-profit out of which the church emerged, has a medical clinic, legal clinic, and after school program.  The church, too, has put the institutional needs of the society over its own.  The church owns part of a large complex that formerly housed a Catholic school and convent (Circle Urban Ministries owns the other part).  Instead of building a sanctuary, it has invested and partnered with others to pour millions of dollars into rehabbing the building into a school which serves the local community.  A charter school rents out the space.  One day the church hopes to complete the last leg of the rehab: a 1100-person capacity auditorium (which would dwarf our 150 attendance).  That space will become the sanctuary - and also would be a tremendous asset to the community.

While I often lament the long history of white flight, there's a counter narrative to be found.  When Chicago's west side flipped from being predominantly white to predominantly black, some white people moved into the neighborhood and tried to learn from their black neighbors and partner together to create stability and hope in a sea of racial change and isolation.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the post, Karen. My sense is that what Emerson and Smith found in Divided by Faith still holds. Emerson’s follow up books, United by Faith and People of the Dream, of course offer something of a counterbalance, as does the work of Peter Slade and Tobin Miller Shearer but I wonder about other social scientific analyses of “success stories” there are?

Phil Sinitiere

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