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.