The Glass House
Part 7: Non-Inclusiveness
Make Yourself At Home
Conversely, I am quite sure black churches can be extremely
intimidating to white visitors. Our services are very long and very loud. Most white churches
I’ve visited have 90-minute services and keep the music down to
the level of a transistor radio. $125,000 state-of-the-art sound
system made to sound like Radio Shack. Our churches actually
have Radio Shack-quality, ancient sound systems held together by
duct tape and we blast them well beyond distortion and feedback. Most
black churches I've known see no value in investing in quality sound or
multimedia. We budget heavily for our usual slate of pageantry, for
useless, expensive, heavy wood pews and blood-red carpet, but out
technology remains patched together from whatever's left over. It sounds terrible, but the
pastor’s wife needs to hear herself screeching above the blaring
Hammond organ. For the uninitiated, this sounds like violence.
The hollering, the pastor snarling and beating up the pulpit
before, inexplicably, bursting into song—the Hammond backing him
up with bursts of blues chords—this is all likely very strange to
whites, Latinos and Asians. Which is why we rarely see any
whites or Latinos or Asians in our congregation. When these
folks do visit, to my experience, black churches are even
worse at making these folks feel welcome than white churches
are. White churches tend to make me feel like a visitor—welcome
to visit but not urged to stay. Black churches, on the other
hand, have a smiling handshake, but it is the greeting of a
Cobra. There’s a lot of anger in the black community, anger most
whites may feel is irrational considering they themselves have
done nothing to harm any of us. But we have been harmed
nonetheless, and that anger informs every smile, every
handshake. Whites receive hostility from us on a visceral level.
Not only do they not feel welcome, it is likely they feel
A white brother got angry with me about preaching about a specific church’s proud African American roots, about the challenges black churches face. This brother found me after service and, red with anger, snarled at me, “This is MY church, too!” He was proud to be a member there, and he didn’t appreciate my preaching about “the black church this and the black church that.” I smiled and embraced him and told him I loved him. And, of course, he was right: he was a member there, that church belonged to all of them. And it was my mistake to not acknowledge that. I reassured him I was talking about the history of that church, a church founded in African American tradition. Simply acknowledging that tradition does not, must not, imply whites are not welcome there; that was wrong of me. But I also asked the brother to acknowledge—I mean, look around—this was a black church. Now, because of you, because of members like yourself, it’s grown to be even more than a “black” church. It’s now a “church,” without requiring the modifier: God’s house, a church for all nations [Mark 11:17].
Diversity is a tricky business.
Muzzling ourselves, pretending we’re not a
black church, just makes us look stupid. It is insincere and
comes across as a lie. Of course we’re a black church. But we can
and should be more than that. I’m never, ever going to censor
myself in the pulpit about our cultural beginnings, but I should
acknowledge cultural diversity and growth and be inclusive of
all who worship there.
difficult as it is for white pastors to broaden the cultural
voice of their worship experience, it is likely exponentially
more difficult for black pastors. Incorporating what we might
consider “white” music into our stomp-and-shout worship
experience can lead to severe divisions within the church body.
Many black congregants feel our black church is our cultural
weigh station: one of increasingly few things that are
uniquely ours. Salting in “white” praise music can be seen to
diminish that uniqueness, and the “white” flavor of that music
may actually stir up deep-seated race anger and bitterness.
Congregants may not express it in those terms; many will just
say, “I don’t like that mess,” but what they mean is, “I’ve
suffered racism all of my life and this music is the music of my
oppressor. It belittles me and invades the one place where I can
truly be who I am.”
Broadening your church’s cultural base will, therefore, be a hot coals-walk experience. It should begin, first and foremost, with teaching. Pastors: try as you might, you cannot teach on Wednesdays. On Tuesdays or Thursdays. You can’t teach fifteen folk at your church and call yourself a teacher. Until our folk learn the value, the importance of teaching, the majority of them will not come out for Bible Study. Like it or not, your best shot at educating people, at changing lives, is Sunday morning worship. Most pastors I know hate to give up their hoop time for tasks like teaching, and feel like a lot of what we need to say should be kept “in the family” and not for public consumption. Our pastors wait for Wednesday where they talk to fifteen people and call that “teaching the church.” Pastors: teaching needs to happen where the students are. The students are in your congregation Sundays at eleven.
Teaching on diversity should probably start with clips of the film Amistad. It has to begin by directly engaging our membership on the issue of hate: the nature of hate, its origins, how it got there, how deeply-embedded it is. How it’s not going away anytime soon. Preaching on hate, especially race hate, about why it is wrong, but more so, how we can cope with it because eliminating it completely is not likely to happen. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying to you; the institutionalized nature of racism means this stuff is embedded into our cultural DNA. I’ve heard lots of pastors preaching about how we should let that stuff go, the old hatred. But it’s in there, in the rings of our ancestral tree, and that’s naïve preaching from a naïve pastor. This is our true struggle: not just for equality but for freedom from hate. Your church, white or black, can never become truly multicultural, can never become truly inclusive, until we all understand this hate, confront this hate, give this hatred over to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Until we directly engage the things that divide us, we’re just kidding ourselves. And, as long as we’re kidding ourselves, our churches won’t grow.
Once we’ve taught on hatred and ministered to one another about hatred, inviting church groups in from white churches to perform special music, preach and teach, conducting pulpit exchanges, our congregations visiting their churches: this is key to desensitizing our congregations—white and black—to matters of race. It’s a process where white believers become less frightened of us, and we become less hostile toward them. After that, the most painful part: modifying our traditions. Not letting go of our traditions, but adding on to them. Not watering our traditions down, but allowing that tradition to find broader expression and perhaps deeper meaning by adding facets of other traditions to ours.
As we’ve previously discussed,
the church needs to minister to the
community in which it is physically located. Many of our
churches have “commuter” congregations who drive in, holler and
shout, and drive away, leaving a bewildered neighborhood
wondering what all the fuss was about. Here in Ourtown, many of
our black churches are located in lower-class neighborhoods
where real estate was cheap, and the surrounding blocks are
populated by whites and Latinos. Because the demographic is
white and Latino, many of our churches haven’t even tried to
include them in the goings-on at our churches.
Some of our churches here have opened their doors to Spanish-speaking ministries, and that’s a great start. But, if your church isn’t even fellowshipping with the Spanish-speaking ministry that meets within its doors, you’re just kidding yourself about church growth or, frankly, about even *being* a church. Inviting Latinos and other cultures into your church is a great thing to do. Building a wall between you and them is incredibly wrongheaded.
Making room for new family—permanent visitors—is tough. It’s as tough as getting married. Most couples really don’t fully appreciate the shock to the system marriage can be. Two people, with two different patterns of when and where and how they do things, where they keep things, music they like, places they go, two completely different sets of friends to invite over or to go visit. Without preparation for all of that, most marriages have enormous problems early on because he loves her and she loves him and, even though they’re driving each other insane, no one wants to hurt the other’s feelings so nobody says anything until somebody’s walking out.
The only thing worse than our churches’ tradition of non-inclusiveness would be for us to go about increasing diversity in a stupid way. Before you invite new relatives in to live with you, you need to properly prepare for the systemic shock of different voices and different ways. As unfair and ridiculous as it is for white churches to eliminate all culture from their worship, it is also ridiculous for us to ask other cultures to join with us just to take their money, diversity as an economic measure. I've attended those meetings: we desire church growth but wish to appeal tpo the right kinds of people. This from a black church desiring to broaden its cultural base because adding X-percent more whites to the membership equals XX-percent more income for the church. That’s Diversity For Morons. It is insincere, and people can smell that. It is not a strategy that God can bless.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle, of course,
is not cultural diversity but sexual orientation.
As I mentioned in
this essay series, homophobia is, perhaps, the last acceptable
American bigotry. We will surely march on city hall and overturn
busses if somebody called us a nigger, but we—all of us, white,
black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim,
Gnostic—freely and somewhat openly discriminate against gays. As
bad as it is for whites and other ethnicities within our
churches, where they have precious little voice, same-gender
loving people have virtually no voice at all. It is simply not
spoken of. But they are here, they are with us. They are our
sisters, our brothers, our fathers, our mothers, our cousins.
Sometimes, they are our spouses. The church that truly believes
it has no gay people in it is just kidding itself. It has chosen
to embrace cultural elimination or, worse, encourage
people to lie in the name of the Lord.
Gay hatred is fairly inexplicable to me, though I myself have been prone to it. That’s the subject of another essay, but I have to assume we hate gays because we fear them; that it is, in fact, fear more so than hatred that creates this enormous discomfort and visceral dynamic. Judeo-Christian religions have traditionally condemned gays according to both Levitcal law and Pauline teaching [Romans 1], the latter giving evidence of God’s condemnation of same-sex relationships surviving past the Dispensation of the Law. I do not propose to have any answers for you or any wonderful illumination on how to solve this problem of non-inclusivity. Gay hatred is embedded at perhaps an even deeper emotional level than race hatred, and a pastor is often combating a lifetime of pew-sitting in his congregants who have not studied much at all of the Bible and whose moral structure is therefore constructed of bits and pieces of stuff they done heard somewhere. In 40+ years in the black church, I’ve known only one pastor to do any kind of in-depth study of biblical teaching on homosexuality that wasn’t terribly biased and ignorant. I could write you an encyclopedia of pros and cons about gay inclusivity and it wouldn’t make much difference: if I condemn homosexuality, I’m usually applauded. If I question that condemnation, in even small ways, I am presumed to be myself homosexual. It is the classic McCarthyesque witch hunt: decry the unfairness and ignorance of persecuting Communists, and you yourself must be a Communist.
In terms of gay inclusivity, there are two immediate and disturbing practices: first is the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell school of thought, which, while not usually being a literal ordinance of the church, tends to be in place in many if not most of our church communities. Just ignore it. Don’t ask them about it, and as long as gay folks do not openly say they are gay, they are welcome to worship. After all, church should not be about who you’re sleeping with, anyway. But, the problem there is we are demanding that gay folk remain silent, gagged and bound, while we have OUR church service. We are asking people to deny who they are, who they love, what their lives are like. This is not ministry. This leads to terrible consequences of self-hatred because that’s what our churches are teaching.
The opposite problem is this: pastors not preaching or teaching on the subject at all. That is, unless they are gay-bashing, which is usually a crowd pleaser. Not preaching God’s word, or leaving out certain issues because they make us uncomfortable, is more than wrong. It is, in fact, an abomination [Rev 22:19]. “Abomination” means it denies the holiness of God. I believe it is wrong to discriminate against gays. I also believe it is wrong to not preach what the old folks used to call the “Full” Gospel: preach all of it. It is not our duty to be politically correct or to police ourselves: it is our duty to educate the people about the ways of God, the word of God. It is then up to the hearer to work out his or her own soul’s salvation [Phil 2:12], which implies it is not the church’s responsibility to police moral behavior; to send thugs over your house to see who you’re sleeping with. To vote it out. To go shoot people or burn folks at the stake. Our charge is to preach [2 Tim 4:2], to educate, to enlighten. Beyond that we are all made creatures of free will.
It is important to separate homosexuality from homosexuals. The religious right tends to blur that distinction, condemning gay people, when the bible itself condemns gay practice. The bible also condemns a lot of other things —most loudly, divorce. And we not only affirm remarried couples and perform second, third and fifth weddings, but we have entire ministries that see to the needs of divorced people. Jesus Christ Himself condemned divorce [Luke 16:18] while saying not one recorded word about homosexuals. We minister to one group of "sinners" while loathing and hating the other. Our ministry to homosexuals tends to be mostly useless attempts to reorient them, which is ignorance and ultimately selfish. Many of our churches have ministries for alcoholics, for drug abusers, for special needs people. But the support group for gay persons is a rare thing, as many of our congregants would surely object to their tithing dollars being spent to give comfort and non-condemning counsel to practicing homosexuals.
These objections remain in place, pastor, because you’re not preaching on this. You’re not teaching on it because you’re probably scared to teach on it. Or you, too, are so immersed in centuries of ignorant bigotry that you have no interest in teaching on homosexuality other than to condemn it. But this is an issue the black church must confront, must take seriously. We cannot ignore this forever, and, whatever side of the fence you fall on, the thing we should all agree about is hatred is wrong, Bigotry is wrong. The doors to God’s house must, MUST, be open to ALL people [Matt 11:12-18], and all people need Jesus Christ in their lives. Beginning a bible study for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community (LGBT), led by a gay minister or layman, would likely alarm and divide the church. Personally, I’ve always thought an alarmed church to be a good thing, and division isn’t always bad as it is the ignorant folk who usually hit the road first. But, like inviting whites into your congregation, this would take serious preparation and education. A church's LGBT ministry would not exist to either condone or condemn homosexual practice—as only God can condone or condemn—and its existence should not be an indicator of the church's affirmation of homosexuality but as a function of the church's purpose: to be the measure of God's love in a troubled world. A ministry—any ministry—should exist to see to the needs of those ministered to—homosexual persons, who deserve our love, our patience, our compassion and our friendship regardless of your church's doctrinal position on homosexual practice. Jesus fed the five thousand without first asking if there were any homosexuals out on that hill. You can't sell me on the idea that Jesus fed only the straight folk, or that there were no gay people in that crowd. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest Jesus first saw to the needs of the people—of all the people—without judgment, without some religious test, before He preached to them. This is our biblical model and our responsibility to see to the needs of everyone within our doors. Whatever your position on the issue, beloved, we must learn to separate the sin from the sinner. If you have a ministry for divorced persons, there’s no sound doctrinal basis for not having a group that provides support and encouragement for LGBT persons, to give them a voice and to offer them a home.
Diversity—whether cultural or sexual—implies risk. It is impossible for your church to embrace inclusivity without growing pains, without strife, without fuss. It won’t be a perfect process or a neat one. It will, in fact, be violent; an eruption in the status quo and an earthquake to business as usual. But it moves your church away from being a social club, having a form of godliness, and closer to embracing the actual mission of the church: to be a house for all nations. And it is a vital component required to help your church grow.
Christopher J. Priest
27 July 2008