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Race, Intolerance and the Church


Racism has left no American institution untouched, including the church. Not only did many mainline Christian churches support slavery and subjugation of minority groups, they also backed policies that advanced racism such as segregation. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the Catholic Church and a number of Protestant churches have apologized for their role in perpetuating institutional racism in the United States. Other churches have made a commitment to diversity by trying to attract worshippers from a range of ethnic backgrounds and fighting racism. Sadly, some churches have taken a step back in race relations by discriminating against interracial couples and worshippers of color.

Churches Atone for Racism

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A number of Christian churches—the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations—have apologized for engaging in racial oppression. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, actively supported slavery. It later backed segregation. In 1995, the Southern Baptists apologized for supporting racial oppression. Five years afterward, the United Methodist Church apologized for excluding black worshippers and supporting racial discrimination. “Racism has lived like a malignancy in the bone marrow of this church for years,” said Bishop William Boyd Grove in 2000. The Episcopal Church announced in 2006 that it would have a Day of Repentance for its endorsement of slavery and its support of racist practices. The Catholic Church stands out for suggesting that racism was immoral back in 1956, a time when Jim Crow thrived.

Four Ways Churches Can Foster Diversity

While the churches of yesteryear publicly advocated racial segregation, many churches in the 21st century actively seek to become more diverse. How can churches foster cultural diversity? They can start by simply discussing their goals. The pastoral team can let the congregation know that it seeks for the church’s worshippers to be representative of the groups that make up the U.S. Church leaders can also attract a more diverse membership by standing up against oppression. Many churches are involved in fighting injustices such as human trafficking. Other churches fight against racism and seek to promote racial reconciliation. Churches can also become more diverse by reaching out to the minorities who already attend services and encouraging their participation in church activities.

Racism in the Contemporary Church

While many mainline Protestant churches have apologized for their role in perpetuating racial oppression, racism in the church isn’t a thing of the past. Christian institution Bob Jones University became notorious for its ban on interracial dating, a restriction it reversed in 2000. Years after that move, Christian churches continued to take issue with mixed-race couples and worshippers of color. In 2011, a white member of a Kentucky church was told not to return after performing a musical piece for the congregation with her Zimbabwean fiancé. In July 2012, Church of God’s Chosen faced a backlash after advertising its “whites only” Christian conference in Alabama. That same year a Mississippi church made headlines for refusing to wed a black couple on its premises.

Ending Segregation in the American Church

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Decades after Jim Crow ended, churches in the United States remain segregated. According to some estimates, only 5 to 7.5 percent of American churches are home to diverse congregations. So, what can churches do to become racially integrated? They can first and foremost diversify their staff. If the pastoral team all belong to the same racial group, it’s not likely that a diverse group of worshippers will call the church home. A diverse staff may provide churches with the opportunity to offer bilingual worship services. If worship is offered in Spanish, for example, more Latinos may attend the church. Churches may also use a variety of musical styles during worship and launch ministries in diverse neighborhoods.
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