Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Race and religion: Has church segregation really changed since MLK?

ChristianityBaptistFamilyRacismRoman CatholicismMartin Luther King Jr.

"It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning…"

Martin Luther King Jr.

Since King first raised the issue of race and religion more than 50 years ago, much has changed. Just how different things are now is apparent on opposite ends of John Young Parkway.

On the north end is Church in the Son, a multiracial congregation founded in 2000 by Alex Clattenburg, former pastor of Calvary Assembly. Clattenburg said his 4,000-member church, in which the congregation is about half minority, reflects that many faiths now accept all people regardless of race or ethnicity.

The congregation was largely white and middle-class until the church decided it wanted to become more inclusive. In the past five years, the church has dramatically increased its minority membership. And once it welcomed more diverse congregants, the church didn't relegate them to the pews, but included them in positions of responsibility as well, Clattenburg said.

"It's not 'I love you and sit down.' You let them be in leadership," he said.

Alfreda Huntington attended a predominantly black church before joining Church in the Son about five years ago. She wasn't specifically looking for a multiracial church, but the diversity she found inside the sanctuary reflected more closely the integrated world in which she lives.

"I always had a problem with all black people going to one church and all white people in other churches," said Huntington. "I just didn't like the fact everybody was segregated."

Research by sociologist Michael Emerson of Rice University in Houston found that nondenominational "megachurches" such as Church in the Son are far more likely to be diverse than smaller churches, which are more likely to be bound by tradition and dogma. The number of diverse evangelical churches of 1,000 members or more has grown from 6 percent in 1998 to more than 25 percent, Emerson found.

On the south end of John Young is First Baptist Church of Orlando, a 15,500-member Southern Baptist megachurch that has gone from excluding blacks to welcoming minorities. Black members view the racial mix in the pews as evidence of not only how far their church has come from the days of segregation, but also the progress made nationwide since King's era.

Kevin Howard, who joined the church eight years ago with his family after moving from Maryland, said he was struck by the diversity of the congregation: white families, African-American families, Asian families, Hispanic families.

"This is something in my heart I always desired: to be able to worship with a multitude of cultures," said Howard, a retired police officer who grew up in a predominantly black Baptist church. "This church would impress Dr. King."

'Most segregated hour'

King often repeated his famous observation on race and religion, using it to highlight the institutional racism that existed in American churches and the role of many clergy in perpetuating segregation.

But King wasn't just talking to the Southern preachers who stood in the way of desegregation, said King biographer David Garrow. He was also lamenting that religion in America had failed to transcend the nation's racial divisions. Instead of bringing white and black together, it was helping to keep them apart.

King was "making the argument that the white church, especially in the South, had failed to observe true Christian teaching — just as much as any white segregationist institution," Garrow said.

Institutional racism has largely disappeared from American churches, but the separation of blacks in their churches and whites in theirs, has not.

Researchers estimate that only 8 percent of American churches have a congregation in which 20 percent or more of its members do not belong to the congregation's dominant race.

"By and large, Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America," said Gerardo Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., and author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church.

But Marti contends that what has changed is Americans' attitudes about race and religion. That change is embodied by the First Baptist of Orlando.

In King's time, blacks were not welcomed into Southern Baptist churches. The Southern Baptist churches, which split with other Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, staunchly opposed integration and have been slow to embrace minority members.

First Baptist senior pastor David Uth concedes that his church, which he estimates is one-third minority, is unusual among Southern Baptist congregations.

"This church may be an anomaly when it comes to a Southern Baptist church," Uth said. "What I do believe is this is a church that places less value on the color of a person's skin than the character of the person's heart."

Churches either adapt to the change in culture or die, said Bill Faulkner, executive director of the Greater Orlando Baptist Association. As a result, Faulkner sees a greater willingness among Southern Baptists to invite minorities through the church doors.

Nationwide, Southern Baptist membership is shrinking as the percentage of the white population declines. At the same time, the number of Southern Baptists who are minorities has grown to an estimated 18 percent of its 16 million members, according to the Rev. Richard Land, head of the denomination's public policy arm.

The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church of Orlando, said churches still remain largely segregated on Sunday, but it is less the result of racism than choice. It has become more a matter of style of worship, culture and tradition than exclusion, he said.

"People worship where they feel most comfortable," said Bracy, president of the local NAACP.

Catholic Church welcomed Hispanics, immigrants

The Roman Catholic Church has a history of making Hispanics and immigrants feel welcome and comfortable, and that has contributed to its growth at a time when other mainstream denominations are shrinking. In Orlando, Catholic parishes reflect the growing ethnic and racial composition of their neighborhoods, said Bishop Thomas Wenski. St. James Cathedral in downtown Orlando is about 18 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Haitian, but also includes Asians, blacks and whites.

"Martin Luther King's famous statement is no longer true," Wenski said. "Religion is not a segregating influence. It's an integrating influence."

At the time, Martin Luther King was becoming the voice that reminded America of the gap between what it promised and what it delivered, and the gulf between what was preached in the pulpit and what was practiced in the street.

"His statement about segregation on Sunday morning was partly a protest and partly a lament," said Keith Miller, author of Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources.

Today, King's lament remains true for some, but it serves as a benchmark by which all people can measure change in race and religion in America.

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5392.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
ChristianityBaptistFamilyRacismRoman CatholicismMartin Luther King Jr.
Comments
Loading