January 20, 2014 by Kyle
I recently sat down with a African American Christian who attends a multi-ethnic church in the Philadelphia area. The interview was prompted by earlier conversations around the topic of the African American and multi-ethnic churches. The following interview highlights positives and negatives elements of both churches. I really wanted to capture the visceral impact of silence at the Trayvon Martin trial. This interview was originally conducted around the end of the Martin, Zimmerman trial. It’s amazing how silence can prompt pain, and although oft written about and championed there is major work that multi-ethnic churches must engage in outside of creating a comfortably, color blind atmosphere. The individual requested to be kept anonymous. I would add that there is something that leaders in the African American church can learn alongside our multi-ethnic church brothers and sisters in the interview that follows.
1. Could you describe for me the breakdown of race and class within your current place of worship?
My fellowship is comprised of around 250 mostly Caucasian believers in a suburban setting. It has been established for about 5 years and was a plant from a larger, parent church plant comprised of the same demographic. There are some interracial couples that are Eastern Indian and white husband and wives. There is a small population of Africans and African Americans with even fewer Asians and Latinos. Most of the congregation is upper middle class, master degrees professionals. Most are single income families with stay at home mothers in the younger population.
2. Please tell me why you started attending a multi-ethnic church?
My experience has been Southern Baptist, rife with tradition and lacking in brevity. There had to be an diverse, urban church that was bible believing, bible teaching, loving, healthy and growing. Unfortunately, the church we sought doesn’t really exist–without sacrifice.
3. Why not attend a predominantly African American church?
As I stayed above, there is so much fluff, so much “extra” pomp and circumstance that, although comforting, is not really our “culture”. Our friendships are diverse, so why do we have to be segregated on Sunday morning? This led me to seek fellowship outside of the African American church experience.
4. Please highlight some of the positives of a multi-ethnic fellowship?
The long, “turn to your neighbor” whooping and hollering just doesn’t exist in the multi-ethnic fellowship. Some of the norms like usher’s day, auxiliary board luncheons and Sunday School don’t happen on the 7th day in the suburbs. You’re in at 10, bring your latte, swipe your debit card for tithes and missions and out the door by 11:35. I say that tongue in cheek, but societal cultural casual behaviors have seeped their way (or have they always been there?) in the multicultural church.
Another positive is that you KNOW people are praying for you. (More on that topic later.) There is an excellence in communication and organizations that can be missing in some urban churches. Funds that are necessary to get things done are readily available. This frees people who work alongside each other in the Body to simply serve. Simple is the operative word. There are not 20 meetings, 10 leaders, and 100 differing opinions about getting things done. Succinctly put, things happen. They are spirit filled, spirit led and willing to serve in any capacity without title, invitation–only expecting to be called brother or sister in Christ.
5. Many would say that multi-ethnic churches are what Christ intended. If this is the case could you describe how the multi-ethnic church in North American doesn’t live up to its ideal?
We are all one Body, many members and Jesus created each of us. There is no distinction at the foot of the cross. However, and I hesitate to say however because Christ’s words are true, we cannot ignore sin in the world. No matter how good-intentioned someone is, there is racism, discrimination, and marginalization at every hand in our culture. The African American in the multi-cultural church experience is almost a caricature, expected to be the expert on all things urban.
In addition, it seems that although some suburban churches have more resources than urban churches, those churches outside the city are much more willing to travel across the world rather than deal with the socioeconomic, social problems of those in the city. One mission trip to say, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa is approximately $4,000. If a team of 10 went consecutively every year for 10 years, can you imagine the impact of $400,000 on the widows and orphans or addicts just 10 miles away?
6. Could you highlight one such event which seems to encapsulate the deficiency of a multi-ethnic fellowship?
There are many, but the most painful had to be when the Trayvon Martin verdict was given. We, as an entire nation, should have been outraged together–as a church–stirred to action. *crickets* I went to bed angry. I fell asleep thinking about my children and if they were accused of a crime post mortem and vilified as an animal, a criminal how I would feel. I decided to attend worship and not one word was uttered. The place where we all meet–the Church–had no remedy, no comfort, no collective solution. I recall situations where more “mainstream” events were mentioned from the pulpit. Most references were either so far away geographically that no one locally could relate, or, directly involved a white person who experienced tragedy or injustice.
This highlights that multi-cultural churches really are not ready to deal with the race issue.
7. As an African American could you provide the ideal picture of a multi-ethnic fellowship? Paint a picture of real diversity
Ideal is Christ at the center. Vulnerability, humility, and the ability to make mistakes on all parts around the issues. [R]ace [is] important in the multi-ethnic church. Inclusion, not assimilation. Simplicity, not confusion.
8. How does a multi-ethnic fellowship parallel the world you exist in everyday?
In my world, things can’t get much more diverse. I have friends who are same sex, agnostic, pagan, recovering Catholics, handicapped, American, blind, Egyptian, and everything else in between. There is a respect, beyond religious affiliation, that I don’t see in the multi-ethnic church. The world is made up of so many people and if we are to ‘go ye therefore’, we have a long way to go…at least [beyond] the areas where Starbucks has a lease.
9. Is there anything else you would like to add to this conversation about being African American within a multi-ethnic worship context?
I feel alone. The only thing that keeps me there is the genuine love that I do feel from the congregation. No matter the issue, you know someone is praying and willing to meet needs. It sounds a little oxymoronic, but the trade off is get lost in the number at a large African American church, or risk being vulnerable, ignored, paraded, or even subtly stereotyped, I’ll take the latter.
After hearing these words I empathized because this account described my own journey. I rejected certain aspects of the traditional African American Church and found myself in a white church but felt like a novelty. My journey brought me back to the Black Church as a leader who is able to have some influence over what happens. I am at a different place in my ecclesiological journey. The general feeling that you don’t belong anywhere is something that plagues so many; the traditional paradigm of black church life has lost some appeal and then the ultra-bright white environment of a multi-ethnic or white church just doesn’t scratch the itch either. Both worlds have value but they also present hurdles to genuine fellowship. I do not agree with everything this individual shared but as a leader I would be negligent to dismiss her words as inconsequential.