Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Segregated Pews

After reading the article, “Race in the American Mind,” I was surprised and disturbed by the many ways in which racial inequality still impacts our society. I have found myself to be more of a conflict theorist in the last few weeks as I’ve realized just how much progress is yet to be made in terms of our unity as a society. Rhodes Religious Studies Professor Steve Haynes recently wrote a blog on the Huffington Post website about his recent book The Last Segregated Hour. In his book, Haynes chronicles the history of responses to segregation in Memphis churches. His post challenged me to consider the church as one of those many places still infected with the “virus” of racism. While these sacred spaces may not be legally segregated any longer, Americans continue to state their preference for same-race congregations. In his blog, Haynes writes:
Most Americans are familiar with the adage that 11 o'clock on Sunday morning is the week's most segregated hour. Although there is less homogeneity in American churches than when the observation was first popularized in the 1950s, the segregation of Christian worship continues to be analyzed by sociologists and lamented by religious leaders. The perpetuation of racial separation on Sunday mornings may be due to preference, convenience and a highly segmented religious marketplace. But its historical origins are to be found in white desires for segregated congregations.

Haynes also writes about the church Independent Presbyterian here in Memphis that just recently addressed its complex racial history in 2010. The church decided to work through “the sin of racism” as a congregation and move forward into a state of renewal and reconciliation.  The church released a statement addressed to its congregation, saying:

On behalf of the Session, this public address to you today specifically marks the beginning of a time of corporate confession and repentance by Independent Presbyterian Church (past and present) regarding the sin of racism.  Just as we celebrate those aspects of  our history at Independent Presbyterian Church of  which we Independent Presbyterian Church are proud, we must also acknowledge with sadness and renounce and repudiate those practices in our history that do not reflect biblical standards.

This story disturbed me, but also profoundly moved me. While racial conservatives like John McWhorter seem to think that we have moved past most racial problems, this story shows that many aspects of our culture are still inflicted with segregation and animosity. I was challenged to consider my own church congregation. Yes, it is predominantly white but I found myself defending it as it didn’t intentionally exclude anyone. But does racism need to be intentional to still be racism? I’m not completely sure. But I do think that we have to begin to challenge ourselves to reexamine our comfortable status quo—even if our intentions do not appear to be hostile or exclusive. The solution to this problem is quite complex, as most solutions usually are. Is the church merely a microcosm of a greater institutional segregation? Or does it have a distinct tendency to maintain segregation? Music, geography, preaching style, and many other factors impact this question. Ultimately, can we remain comfortable with segregated pews? What about segregated movie industries or TV channels? What areas in our culture are still in need of a radical reconciliation? Think about your own congregation—have you ever considered its racial make-up? 

Here is the link to Prof. Haynes blog article:

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