By Logan Williamson
In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the “most segregated hour” in America. Segregation is not only the separation of racial/ethnic groups, but the legacy of institutional racism that has led to that separation.
Jemar Tisby, the president of “Witness: A Black Church Collective,” said historically, “there would be no black church without racism in the white church.”
During the Civil War-era, white theologians issued treatises justifying the enslavement of Africans and saw their perpetual bondage as sanctioned and ordained by God.
During the Civil Rights era, many white Christian school systems in the South resisted the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation.
“Just as they opposed integrating schools, they feared that recognizing blacks as equals in the intimate context of church would usher in total social equality, which they found unacceptable,” according to eji.org.
So, “whites-only churches” deliberately barred black people from entering a church building, let alone becoming members, elders or leaders.
Tisby said the status of racial segregation in the church has changed in the post-Civil Rights era.
“The climate in society has changed to become less militantly opposed to integration,” he said. “Although, you could make copious arguments that we’re still segregated.”
In 2015, Christianity Today reported that 8 in 10 congregations are mono-racial (at least 80% of churchgoers belong to a single race/ethnic group).
Tisby said churches now generally will say they are open to everyone, although that as a fact in practice is a different question.
“There is still very much a race problem,” he said.
In terms of the black/white racial divide, he said there are reasons for ethnic-specific churches, and that it goes deeper than stylistic differences in preaching or worship services.
“It is about the content. Although the theologies are not incompatible, there are different starting points,” he said.
For example, the starting point for white evangelical churches is Christ’s resurrection, the New Testament, and Paul’s Epistles to the churches. By contrast, for much of the black church tradition, the beginning point is the Exodus and biblical theologies of freedom, liberation and justice.
Tisby also said that when black people form their own denominations or leave predominantly white churches, it is not typically because of a doctrinal dispute.
“They are not arguing over the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the Nicene Creed or other core foundational Christian doctrines. What black people are responding to is the fact that they are being treated as second-class citizens in the household of God,” he said.
In 1974, UM students formed the Black Student Union Choir in response to being ignored, dismissed or disrespected by other students at a predominantly white college. According to Malaco Music Group, the choir provided black students a “musical and spiritual outlet as well as a supportive community and source of cultural pride.”
In 1991, the choir changed its name to the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir.
Darius Woodard, the director of the UM Gospel Choir, said the group is welcome to singers of every race, although it is important to know how the choir started and where it came from.
“The choir started from a segregation-type situation,” said Woodard. “We want anyone who joins to be comfortable, but we also need to be real about the fact that it was started by black people who had to fight to establish it.”
The UM Gospel Choir is all black this year, but it has included people of other racial backgrounds in the past. Also, it is not listed on the university’s website as a “student religious organization.”
A Baylor University study found that the percentage of multiracial congregations nearly doubled from 1998 to 2012, although it is still a small percentage.
It is important not to just look at the demographic or statistical reality, according to Tisby, but also the qualitative experience that people of color have in integrated church communities.
“For Christians who want to bridge the racial divide in the church, they often see integration as the solution without recognizing what that entails for racial and ethnic minorities,” he said.
Multiethnic churches are often proposed as the solution, even though those types of congregations assimilate into the dominant ethnic identity that, in most cases, is white.
“I think there is an absolute place for multiethnic or interracial churches, but perhaps we have overestimated what they can do,” Tisby said.
During integration, he said there are aesthetic and cultural traits that racial and ethnic minorities have to give up that white Christians do not.
“Black people are giving up things from historically black traditions in multiethnic churches. There may be more intentionality to try to make that not happen, but it still does,” Tisby said.
He said that some multiethnic ministries can be a “great thing” depending on an individual’s leadership style, particularly the “humility they have in crossing racial lines to try to understand people who are different.”
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, at a national level, has made intentional efforts to demonstrate diversity and offers a message of racial reconciliation, and that has an impact on local chapters.
Lois Paney, the UM Campus Minister for InterVarsity, said that it is significant and intentional on behalf of the organization to reach out to a diverse group of students.
InterVarsity has roughly 35 members, including undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. It is 60% African-American, 23% white, 8 or 9% international students, 6% Asian American and 3% Latino.
When making plans for the upcoming year, Paney checks the current demographics of the campus and asks herself and her organization who they should be reaching out to.
“It is something that we talk about in leadership meetings and small group Bible studies, who we are reaching or not reaching,” Paney said.
She said that she and her organization believes that God cares about diversity, and that it is reflected in his creation, in Christ Jesus and in biblical visions of the end times.
“All throughout the Bible, God is a God of the nations. Starting with Genesis, we see that God created everyone in his own image. When Jesus comes on the scene, he crosses cultural barriers to reach people and help them to know who he is and about his love. When Jesus died on the cross, he made a way for us to be reconciled to God and to each other. In Revelation, we see a picture of the nations worshipping before God from every tribe, people and language,” Paney said.
“If diversity is a value for God, then that needs to be a value for us,” she said.
Woodard said the point of ministry is reaching out to people of different ethnicities.
“It’s important to get back to the way ministry is,” he said, “which is reaching out and telling other people who may not know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that has no color.”
He said that is natural for people to gravitate toward groups they feel most comfortable with, but that he does not think it should be a matter of being uncomfortable because of someone’s skin color.
“If we are here to edify and uplift, then why not come together, if we are to love just as Jesus would,” said Woodard.
He said that this semester, people on campus have started to realize that there is an issue of racial segregation, and they have done a better job of trying to integrate communities and being “one body in Christ.”
In February, campus ministries came together for an event called Prevail to acknowledge race through a biblical lens. In April, UM students helped organize “Come Together: Oxford,” a night of worship for Oxford community members. Both events had gatherings of multiethnic believers and featured performances by the UM Gospel Choir.
However, Woodard said that he has seen “little to no” representation of black Christian pastors or ministers on campus.
“I feel like there could be minority campus leaders put in place alongside the other leaders to give other ethnic groups someone to relate to. Right now, we don’t see a face that is similar,” he said.
Paney, while she is white, appoints students of different racial and ethnic identities to lead Bible studies or help make decisions for the UM chapter, but there is not a strong presence of black Christian leadership on campus.