Evangelical Churches Crossing the Ethnic Divide
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22 Historically Speaking · July/August 2008 Evangelical Churches Crossing the Ethnic Divide Kathleen Garces-Foley When asked what he thought of Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington, Billy Graham responded, "Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with litde black children."1 Graham shared the millennial theology of most white evangelicals of his time and, while personally in favor of desegregation, he believed that much social reform was poindess. Three decades later, in Adanta, Graham would share a revival stage with Loretta Scott King and urge Christians to break down racial barriers.2 By this time, white evangelicals were ready to give integration serious consideration. The number of books promoting, describing, and analyzing how to overcome racial barriers in all areas of life, but especially in the churches, has grown copiously since the 1990s. No longer waiting for Christ's return to challenge historical patterns of ethnic and racial separation, American evangelicals have become progressive leaders in the development of multiethnic churches. Churches across the country are talking about diversity. Many make gestures of inclusion, like changing their mission statements, but few have actually become racially diverse. A nationwide survey conducted in 2000 found diat only 5.5% of Christian churches were multiracial, defined as having no more than 80% of a single racial group.' Yet given how long American churches have insisted on an ethnic or homogeneous church model (including die white ethnic church), the energy surrounding die emerging multiethnic church movement is remarkable. The phenomenon among evangelicals appears to be much more than a fad, as it has parallels within Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant circles.« Still, the ethnic church model is firmly rooted in American soil and will not be replaced easily. If the current enthusiasm translates into lasting institutions, the long-standing pattern of ethnic divisions in American churches will be seriously challenged. While evangelical Christians attribute this institutional sea change to the power of God, diere are a number of major social changes underfoot that provide fertile ground for the emergence of the multiethnic church. Demographically, the United States has never been so diverse, with peoA Chicago Pentecostal church, 1941 . Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-DIG-fsa-8cO0856j pie of color projected to make up 50% of the American population by 2050. Americans today have many more opportunities for contact with people of different ethnicities than did earlier generations . The forced desegregation of schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces has also translated into attitudinal changes, though these are harder to quantify. Racism still exists, to be sure, but many Americans today have become tolerant of and even favorably inclined toward racial integration. Such attitudinal changes can be inferred from various sources: the rising rates of intermarriage, integrated social networks portrayed positively on television, and the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. The history of race relations within American Christianity is a bleak tale of strict segregation punctuated by episodes of brief interracial experiments . The first of these episodes occurred before slavery, with die establishment of colonies where black and white indentured servants mingled freely. While slavery flourished, blacks were admitted into Christian churches under a strictly enforced racial hierarchy that spatially ensured segregation . The free expression of biracial camp meetings provided greater dignity to blacks but seldom translated into the institutional church. In the North, freedmen joined white churches but rarely were treated as equals even in Methodist and Baptists circles where blacks served as preachers. Even the abolitionist Quakers found it difficult to share their pews with African Americans.5 The early 20th century saw a number of interracial church experiments, such as Father Divine's Peace mission, but by far the most promising were the gatherings at Azusa Street in Los Angeles. From 1906 to 1908, the AfricanAmerican holiness preacher William J. Seymour gathered blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos to pray for the blessing of the Holy Spirit through the speaking of tongues. Though bystanders found this religious practice strange, it was the mixing of races as equals that proved to be most intolerable to Americans in the early 20th century. By the 1920s the emerging Pentecostal movement had split along...


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