The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.
They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church’s newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of “them” tried to join their church?
“One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover,” says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.
The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church’s newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.
Americans may be poised to nominate a black man to run for president, but it’s segregation as usual in U.S. churches, according to the scholars. Only about 5 percent of the nation’s churches are racially integrated, and half of them are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white, says Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of “United by Faith,” a book that examines interracial churches in the United States.
Theodore Brelsford, co-author of “We Are the Church Together,” another book that looks at interracial churches, says whites often say that church should transcend race.
“They’d say, ‘Can’t we just get along without talking about race all the time? Can’t we just be Christians?’“
Not really, say advocates for interracial churches. They argue that churches should be interracial whenever possible because their success could ultimately reduce racial friction in America.
American churches haven’t traditionally done a good job at being racially inclusive, scholars say. Slavery and Jim Crow kept blacks and whites apart in the pews in the nation’s early history. Some large contemporary black denominations, like the African Methodist Episcopal church, were formed because blacks couldn’t find acceptance in white churches.
Large denominations like the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians split over race in the 19th century when their members clashed over the issue of slavery, Michael Emerson, a scholar on interracial churches, recounted in his book, “Divided by Faith.”
But interracial church advocates say the church was never meant to be segregated. They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew—it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another, they say.