When I was 10 years old, my family switched congregations, and it was an event that changed my life forever. I started my life at an all-black Lutheran congregation in Cleveland where I was baptized. My family had belonged to that congregation since the 1940s. We then moved to a congregation in a suburb of Cleveland, and there was something oh-so-different about it. It was very white but more than willing and ready to welcome its newest members—my black family.
I spent the next 12 years there, growing my faith and learning what it means to be a Christian. I was confirmed there, sang in the choir, was an acolyte, took part in youth group activities, and made wonderful friends and memories along the way. The one thing that I didn’t know it was teaching me, though, was about race relations in the church.
Flash forward to a couple of years later after college, and I’m now living in Seattle. It’s about 2,400 miles from where I grew up and is a city full of racial and cultural diversity. I was expecting to see that same kind of diversity in church, but boy was I wrong. I started going to different congregations across almost every denomination, not just Lutheran, and I still found them to be mostly white.
All of this time spent being one of the only black faces in all-white congregations taught me some things about race relations that I now want to share. I’m not bashing any of these congregations; these are just my observations that I’m sharing because I think this is an important topic we, as church people, should start talking about.
- It’s hard to talk about race.
In my family we talked openly about race, but that attitude wasn’t always present in many of the congregations I attended. Race becomes the big elephant in the room because everyone notices it’s there but still won’t bring it up. I believe people don’t bring it up because it makes them uncomfortable, but isn’t being a follower of Christ about being made uncomfortable sometimes?
I wish church people would see that race isn’t a scary subject to talk about unless you make it one. Don’t ignore the events going on in your community and in the world just because you might not know how to talk about them. The best thing you can do is talk about these things and not let them get swept under the rug. It may be hard at first to put your biases and prejudices aside, which we all have, but talking openly and honestly about race in church needs to happen.
- When the Bible says make disciples of all nations, it really means all.
Matthew 28:16-20 was always read multiple times a year in church and was even my confirmation verse, but as I started to get older, I realized that the church didn’t always live up to it. When I got to college, I became angry with the church for not talking about race issues and not trying to engage and promote diversity in its congregations. If God commands us to love all people, we can’t ignore the ones who don’t look like us or speak our language.
The church must be intentional about this if it ever wants to see change happen. You can’t pick and choose who you want to let in your congregation because all people should be welcome. I love to see congregations embracing diversity and having healthy, meaningful relationships with members of different races. That’s the kind of church we need to show the world because diversity is beautiful and essential to the body of Christ.
- There is still work to do, but the church has come a long way with race relations.
I couldn’t write this article and not talk about all the good things I see in congregations around me and all over this country that are moving us forward. In Seattle alone, I’ve witnessed congregations hosting anti-racism classes and members coming together to march at a Black Lives Matter protest. I’ve been to congregational forums and Bible studies that discussed race relations and ways the church can do better.
All these things make me hopeful for a future in which congregations don’t feel so segregated on Sunday mornings but are instead welcoming spaces where diversity lives and everyone isn’t afraid to talk about it. That is an important step forward that congregations are taking, and I’m proud to be a part of ones that are making change for future generations.
I hope people can read this article and be open to having conversations about race relations in the church. It’s an important topic that sometimes gets overlooked as we focus on other things, but it needs to be addressed. It could happen with clergy bringing it up in sermons or by simply starting a dialogue about race relations with other members of your congregation after Bible study.
If we continue to be silent about this issue, things will not get any better and could possibly get worse. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I want to leave the church for future generations. I want them to be in a church that practices what it preaches and stands up for them and what is right.
Now is the time to speak up and make a change to help the church move to a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of race. We have come so far but still have so far to go, and we need to rise together and not let our voices be silenced. That’s the only way we can move forward—hand-in-hand, bringing about change in race relations.