Interracial Churches


KIM LAWTON, anchor: A tense national debate about racial profiling has continued since Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested in his Cambridge home for disorderly conduct. Gates, who is African-American, was arrested by Sergeant James Crowley, a white officer who had responded to a 9-11 call about a possible break-in. The controversy intensified when President Obama said the police “acted stupidly” when they arrested Gates. The president later said he regretted his choice of words and he hosted both Gates and Crowley at the White House Thursday for a conciliatory beer. The incident and the ensuing debate show how divisive racial issues can be in this country.  Even though America has elected its first black president, efforts toward racial integration are often still fraught with difficulties, not least in churches where it’s been said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Lucky Severson reports.

LUCKY SEVERSON: If something seems odd or unusual about these worshippers, maybe it’s the diversity, all the different colors and nationalities of their faces. This is the Wilcrest Baptist Church in Houston, and Pastor Rodney Woo couldn’t be more proud of the cultural and racial mix of his congregation.

Pastor RODNEY WOO (Wilcrest Baptist Church, Houston, TX): I think my main passion is to get people ready for heaven. I think a lot of our people are going to go into culture shock when they get to heaven, and they get to sit next to somebody that they didn’t maybe sit with while they were here on earth. So we’re trying to get them acclimated a little bit.

SEVERSON: Assuming Pastor Woo is right, there are a lot of congregations that need to get acclimated. A recent study found that only 7 percent of churches in the US are integrated. This comes as no surprise to Ohio State sociology professor Korie Edwards, author of the book “The Elusive Dream.”

Professor KORIE EDWARDS (Sociology Department, Ohio State University and Author, “The Elusive Dream”): We’re segregated in housing. Even the job market is segregated, and we end up going to churches with people who look like us.

Professor Michael Emerson

Professor MICHAEL EMERSON (Sociology Department, Rice University): Sometimes,you know, you’ll hear the statement of African Americans saying, “I have to work with whites. I may have to shop with them. But on Sunday I want to — I don’t want to have to worship with them. I want to be able to just be myself and let my hair down.”

SEVERSON: Rice University sociology professor Michael Emerson, who authored the study on the make-up of churches in the US, says racial separation inside most churches is even more pronounced than it is outside for a number of reasons.

Prof. EMERSON: What we found in the study is that churches are 10 times less diverse than the neighborhoods they sit in.

SEVERSON: Emerson also found that churches in the South were the least integrated, partly because African Americans are concerned about whites taking over their congregation.

Prof. EMERSON: That’s a big fear, right, and when I talk with black pastors, the same thing: If we try to have this move towards interracial congregations, whites will just dominate them. There are so many more of them, and they’re used to being in the position of power, so they’ll just take over, and we’ll lose the one thing we do have.

Prof. EDWARDS: And so what happens in these congregations where you have whites and blacks, even though they may be well intended, people coming together and wanting to do the Christian thing, wanting to serve God together, you’re going to find that these kinds of issues that occur outside of the church come into the church.

SEVERSON: Pastor Rufus Smith of the City of Refuge Church in Houston is one of very few African Americans who lead an interracial church. Smith says when he took over the evangelical Presbyterian congregation it was mostly white, bored, and dwindling. He said he would only agree to be pastor if members promised to integrate.

Pastor Rufus Smith
Pastor RUFUS SMITH (City of Refuge Church, Houston, TX): To their credit, many of those core people decided, you know, come hell or high water, we’re going to try this thing and give it our best shot, though it was an experiment, and here now, 12 years later, we think it’s a grand experience.

SEVERSON: Today the church is about 45 percent white, 45 percent black, and the rest Hispanic and Asian. But Pastor Smith says the “grand experience” hasn’t always been pleasant.

Pastor SMITH: You’re certainly up against the natural stereotypes. You’re up against ignorance. You’re up against some hard-heartedness and, you know, some outright evil with respect to some people.

SEVERSON: Pastor Rodney Woo, half Chinese, grew up in a black neighborhood, went to an all-white church, and married his Hispanic childhood sweetheart.

Pastor WOO (preaching): The poor rich. Let me tell you who they are. They are the people who have a lot of money and nothing else.

SEVERSON: When he came here, the church had only two black members out of 180. Today Wilcrest Baptist has 500 members divided almost equally among whites, blacks, and Hispanics, with the remainder made up of Asians. Woo says he didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be integrating his church.

Pastor Rodney Woo

Pastor WOO: When we started a lot of people were going, “Ah, this is making me feel uncomfortable.” Whether the kids were in the nursery together, or their kids were in the young group, a lot of parents were fearful that their kids might start dating somebody that was a different race.

Prof. EMERSON: In the beginning stages, there’s often a lot of pain, a lot of confusion. A lot of people leave. Maybe there’s even anger. But if they make it through that, it becomes something that people just a lot of times will say, “I couldn’t live without it.”

Pastor SMITH (preaching): Ask me how I feel.

CONGREGATION (responding): How do you feel?

Pastor SMITH: If I was any better, I would have to be twins, and that’s the truth if I ever told it.

SEVERSON: Pastor Rufus Smith has succeeded in not only integrating his church racially. His congregation comes from all walks of life. When it grew, he deliberately located the church between affluent and low-income neighborhoods. Carol Vance, a former district attorney, was one of the founding members.

CAROL VANCE (Founding Member, City of Refuge Church): We picked Rufus because he’s a great pastor, not because he’s black. But I think it’s wonderful that he is, because we’re sitting right here on the edge, and I sort of like to think of our church as the “bridge over troubled waters.”

Pastor SMITH: To me, one of the true tests of the power of the Gospel is to unify people across socio-economic, racial lines, which is what the heart of Christianity is and was.

SEVERSON: Karen Giesen has a doctorate in theology. She says she grew up in a white church where people bowed their head, folded their hands, and worshipped quietly — very different from what she experiences at City of Refuge.

KAREN GIESEN (Congregation Member, City of Refugee Church): The worship style is an issue. None of us are right in probably our heart language style. We’re all making a sacrifice to be there. It’s a mix. A lot of people go looking for churches saying, “I am looking for the one that ministers to me,” and to go here we’ve obviously all made a choice that we want to serve there.

SEVERSON: Rebecca Miller wants to be a pastor. She says she searched to find a church that felt like a community.

REBECCA MILLER (Congregation Member, City of Refuge Church): People worship the way the spirit leads them to worship. I really don’t think that there is anybody saying you can’t shout, you can’t scream, you can’t say “hallelujah” or you can’t clap your hands. It’s not the typical Presbyterian “you can’t raise your hands” church.

Pastor WOO: Where we really changed, and we saw the growth, grow at exponentially, was when the church became less than 50 percent white, and so there was no majority group, and that just changed the entire mindset.

SEVERSON: Church guitarist Jim Kruse married a Hispanic and adopted a Hispanic child. He says he’s learning a few things about his own prejudice.

JIM KRUSE (Guitarist, Wilcrest Baptist Church): What we’re learning is that you may not come to it thinking you are prejudiced. You may be seriously trying not to be prejudiced. But then you find out the things you are doing come across as prejudiced. So I think a lot of our effort has been to learn to relax, to let people be people.

SEVERSON: It would be difficult to find a more graphic example of religion bridging a racial divide than Dwight Pryor and Rick Taylor. Taylor describes himself as a reformed “redneck.”

RICK TAYLOR (Congregation Member, Wilcrest Baptist Church): From where I come from, to be honest, I was taught to hate people like Dwight and to not have anything to do with them and that they were less than I was, and I believed that most of my life. I truly did. But the Lord has a way of showing you your prejudices in your life.

Dwight Pryor and Rick Taylor

DWIGHT PRYOR (Congregation Member, Wilcrest Baptist Church): I grew up in North Mississippi. As a little kid on those school buses, watching those people would shout racist names at me, and some of them were deacons and pastors in our community. It left a cold chill in my heart — a hatred.

SEVERSON: Dwight is a control systems designer, and Rick is a retired general contractor. The bond that has grown between them is plain to see.

Mr. TAYLOR: Racism colors the truth. It makes people not look at other people as if they were human. It goes that deep. It truly does, and Christ teaches us that we are all the same.

SEVERSON (to Prof. Emerson): Are churches that integrate richer because they did it?

Prof. EMERSON: Yeah. I never meet a church that wishes they didn’t do it. I never meet a leader that wishes they didn’t do it. They will all say, to the person, “It’s hard. It’s difficult. It comes with complexities and confusion.”

SEVERSON: And they will say, if they’re like Dwight and Rick, that church integration may not always come easy, but it comes with rich rewards and improbable friendships. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Houston.

  • sandra

    this was a great article to read. i went to an integrated church in greenville, SC, called Redemption World Outreach–not my home church–pastored by Rev. Ron Carpenter, a very dynamic preacher. The church is multicultural,and, at least when I was there 5 years ago, it was equally balanced with white, black and hispanic members. i loved that church, and many of the black ministers in the city hated Rev. Carpenter. They would preach against him from the pulpit just because their members were leaving their churches to join his! I recall at one prayer breakfast ministers stood to berate Rev. Carpenter (without mentioning his name, just his race) accusing him of taking the congregants away from their churches–as if that was possible. A visiting preacher was obviously being asked to comment on this “problem”. when he rose to speak, he had one thing to say: “Teach your people. Teach your people, and they’ll have no reason to leave.” i am sure they were stunned, but he spoke the truth. these ministers yelped, hollered and spoke but they did not teach. i can definitely say that for many of them, and especially for the pastor of the church where i was a member. Rev. Carpenter, at the time, had about a 1200 seat church, and had so many people coming, he was preaching 1 wednesday service, 1 saturday evening service, and 3 sunday services. three races came together in agreement that he was a good pastor and preacher.

  • Rev. S. P. Banks

    A profound and accurate example of Christian Faith in action!
    Christians are truly a work in progress.

  • jack Crook

    I was raised on a farm in South Carolina, where my Father had six African American families working on his farm. I was taught to love and respect all people, regardless of color. I have a son married to an African American, with three beautiful daughters and they live in South Carolina. They attended Wilcrest Baptist Church this past Thanksgiving and were blown away by the interaction of Wilcrest families with all races. I am married to a South Korean. My family believes in GOD and sees all people as being his children. I think this production by PBS on interracial Churches should be shown in public schools , as a learning process to love one another

  • Terri Hollingsworth

    I live in Webster, right outside of Houston, and I attend a Church of Christ in Friendswood that is integrated by black and Hispanic families but the majority of members are white. But the church family really does love the Lord Jesus. I am black and I feel that these people are my family. That is how they make me feel.

  • Bob

    Excellent and thought provoking piece about our churches. During my years in the Catholic clergy, I found that those churches which were most alive and welcoming were interracial.

  • Gloria Winn

    First Presbyterian Church, Benton Harbor MI is also a diverse congregation. We are a small church, just about 100 members, in a racially divided community. Benton Harbor is 99% black and poor. St. Joseph, just across the river, is 95% white and middle to upper middle class. The First Prez congregation is intentionally diverse. We have members (and leaders) who are black/white, rich/ poor, well educated/uneducated, on parole/post parole, straight/gay and our organist is a Hispanic Seventh Day Adventist! We ALL love and care for one another, learn from each other and are active agents for change in our community. May God continue to bless the ministry of City of Refuge.

  • Mark DeYmaz

    You might also include the following related link and reading …
    1. Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church by Mark DeYmaz (Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network, 2007)
    2. (the primary network in the United States connecting multi-ethnic churches and leadership)

  • Cindy

    What wonderful role models for churches. God’s loves us all. We humans are the problem.

  • Richard Pellegrino

    It is good to see that some progress is being made however, to me, it is way too little, way too late. The religions which have come after Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith, are far more diverse and hence more modern, one reason why they are growing while most Christian denominations are diminishing.
    Another thought: with the advent of so many interracial marriages and families all white or all black churches will become obsolete.

  • RevK

    ‘Pastor SMITH: You’re certainly up against the natural stereotypes. You’re up against ignorance. You’re up against some hard-heartedness and, you know, some outright evil with respect to some people.’ In general, people are afraid of the unknown and would rather stay in the boundaries of ‘status quot’, and leave things be, when it comes to blacks on one side of the religious fence and whites on the other. Prejudice is not learned, it is taught by word and example. Evilness, hard heartedness,ignorance and fear, four volatile ingredients whose pathway is nothing but despair and destruction. You can be sure all these set ways will not be present in Heaven. Heaven’s citizens come in all shapes, sizes and yes colors. Sad thing is, if you can’t get along with your brother here because he is a little darker or lighter, how will you make it there? The Body of Christ is a family. Don’t look on the outside of a person, what he or she looks like or what color they are, rather look at their heart. Life is fleeting, why waste it on such trivial matters. I refuse to go to a church where there is one race only.

  • Pastor D

    I love the article, I would have to disagree with the study that AA Pastors are afraid of whites intergrating in the congregation becasue they would take over. Maybe an older generation, but not tis generation of Pastors. In fact, it is my opinion that once whites are comfortable with going to a church with an AA Pastor at the helm, which is happening more and more, we will see a more intergrated Sunday morning. AAs have historically been more willing to venture to a white church than whites to a AA church. We are on purpose going to be a diverse church, I pray that others take the stand and it is certainly not because of what will take place once we get to heaven, but about what we could experience to the full right here on earth, which is the benefits of understanding.

  • Frank Gillum

    I was a member of interracial churches for over 20 years. I felt that they were rare lamps of reconciliation shining in the darkness of separation. Not mentioned in the story was the phenomenon of integration being a transient phase in a transition from all white to all black congregations. Once a tipping point is reached the process tends to accelerate rapidly.

  • Eric

    This is an awesome article! This is really an eye-opener, but I like what Rodney Woo said, the Kingdom of Heaven is going to be very diverse.

  • Stacie Johnson

    Another book to look up is A Mosaic of Believers by sociologist Gerardo Marti, another look at diversity in a Los Angeles church.

    I found an interview with him on the book at

  • Nanette

    I attended this church 2000-2004 and am thankful for the influence the church had on my son. He was able to go to youth with children who were different from him. Our home was open to members at church and this still influences my college age son today. The staff members and Sunday school teachers had a passion for Christ. I am thankful heaven will be like this church all colors, all economic levels. Thanks for accurately portraying Wilcrest.

  • teri white

    I am a follower of Jesus Christ and the grandmother of a precious grandaughter who is biracial. The church i attend is prodominately white and I am feel I should consider a church that is more racially mixed for and my benefit. Can anyone help find sucha church in the Greenville Sc area? Thank you

  • Wanda

    Awesome, what a blessing to know that we are moving forward. I am a member of a church of Christ and see the need for my particular denomination to integrate. Please share this with main stream media, put it in the schools curriculum. Christianity is about loving one another. Great job.

  • Ann

    ”get acclimated”–I like that. I was raised in a small Indiana town-no blacks ”allowed” to live there. 45 years after I left, some, as well as Hispanics, live there. But, attitudes have not changed. My mother commented there were 5 black women who attend her Methodist Church now, but it was, ”Alright. They sit in the back by themselves, so they don’t bother anyone”. I guess I loved my mother, but I hated her and her bigotry, and the fact that she disowned my grandchildren who married black people and I have bi-racial great-grandchildren. I taught my children to look at each person as a person, and not at his color. Too many still do not do this.

  • mary

    my faith is founded on the oneness of humanity, oneness of religion, and oneness of God. It is the age of light, where we can all identify with all people, with all faiths, because it is the the message of this age. It is a powerful knowledge just as the ten commandments forever uplifted the standards of humanity. Religion is progressive, all the prophets of God have come with the same teachings that uphold or fulfills the necessities of the particular age. Read more on this fantastic faith at

  • John V

    As Catholic I alway found this issue to be alarming. The Catholic Church is the most diverse church in the world yet we seem to never deal with the issue described in this story. I always wondered about the hypocracy of ignoring the people “on the other side of the tracks”. Will we be held accountable for ignoring them or failing to invite them to our church. For the failure to reach out to people different than ourselve. How contradictory that is to Chritian ideology. Core meanings of the Gospel such as who is my brother?
    Hence Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan. There seems to be another hypocracy going on too. Yeah like maybe people will go to the soup kitchen to feed those less fortunate than ourselves… but God forbid if those people in the soup kitchen sits in our pew at church. So I get a little annoyed with these hypocracies that people do.

  • rage96

    Why aren’t these congregations referred to as inter-ethnic congregations? There appears to be only one race represented here – the HUMAN RACE.

  • phil

    i was just wondering–does God see races–or does he see saved or unsaved?

  • JSmith

    Something seems to be missing from the article. First of all, I disagree that “diverty” (an overused term) is the goal. Diversity should be a means to achieve a goal, but the goal is not stated in this article, instead diversity seems to be defined as the goal which is contrary to my views at least. I certainly don’t consider myself a racist — my wife and daughter are both Asian and my son is half white and half Asian, so diversity is certainly something we see at home. The goal; however, of any church should be worship, but there is nothing stated here about that — nothing in fact about the Lord at all, and nothing about how diversity is making people’s lives better (which seems to be a goal of many churches).

    To be honest, I think my church has the best solution: if you live within the established boundaries you belong to a certain congregation. Don’t like it? Move — but I don’t know of anyone that ever has. Our church, by that means, welcomes all races (or ethicities, as rage96 would argue) so long as they live in a certain area (which is large enough to include various sorts of neighborhoods). As a result, my church is multi-ethnic at the local level as well as all higher levels. It’s a good system and I recommend it.

  • Terri

    I have been searching so long and hard to find a multi-ethenic church in Greenville, SC. I am greived that it has been far more difficult than I ever imagined. Please pray such a church will be established here.

  • Khassi

    I go to Wilcrest Baptist! I’ve been away at college since August, but my ten year old brother still goes there and my mother stops by on Wednesday nights every so often.

    HI, Pastor Woo!

  • Cyia S.

    I’d like to visit an inter-denominational, racially integrated church in the Macon GA area with an African-American pastor. I’ve seen a few with white pastors. While I don’t have a problem with this, it seems like insincere Christianity on the part of white congregants who think they are above being shepherded by a man or woman of God who happens to be black.

  • Sgt Collins

    Lt. Smith it’s been a long time, I’m happy to see you are well. when u have time drop me a line.

  • Green

    Anyone know of any interrracial churches in the Dallas TX area?

    Green Lamar