We arrived at the entrance to the church, the back of the sanctuary, to find a full house. The usher greeted us and asked us to wait. He walked up to the second row and ushered out all of those men, the deacons. He signaled for us to come down the aisle and fill the row. So I walked with my white girlfriend and her four white children into this otherwise black assembly. Although I had prepared myself for this, I still felt self-conscious, especially for the children. As we were hurrying out at the end of the service, a few people greeted us. But the obligatory acknowledgement of our presence was not enough to erase the discomfort. I don’t know if the kids remember that church visit. I know Laura does.
There were a few moments of silence. And then some verbal wrestling. First Laura said, “I’ve been to black churches before.” In the early 1980s, Laura lived in a predominantly black New Jersey neighborhood working with black children (while I was living in a predominantly white Washington State community working with suburban white teens). For five years she interacted with children and their families and she occasionally attended black churches with white friends. “Although we were obviously visitors” she said about the church visits, “it seemed to me, that it didn’t really matter that we were there.”
Then she reminded me of our Braden visit. Of course the Braden experience was fraught with discomfort potential. And to be fair, the Braden people, who were not expecting this intrusion on Easter Sunday, took it in stride and acted with as much Christian hospitality as they could muster on short notice. But I don’t blame Laura for not wanting to repeat the experience.
Still there had to be something else. In our 2009 tour we visited many churches that treated us as if we didn’t matter. Finally Laura said, “There’s another reason I’m not excited about us going together to a black church. I would go WITHOUT you. I just don’t want to be the white woman who walks into the black church with her black husband, as if to say to black women ‘Look, I have him; you can’t have him.’”
I couldn’t let that go, “Well, Honey, they CAN'T have me. I don’t belong to black women. I belong to you.”
“I know,” she said, “but I don’t want to stir up that feeling in them.”
If you know Laura, you know she was speaking from her heart. And just like that, she demonstrated how complicated these issues are. This was not as simple as, “I feel fine in your church, why don’t you feel fine in mine?” No, the issues are myriad and interconnected. No wonder that individuals, racial groups, and churches don’t venture into them. This is not easy stuff.
The conversation that Laura and I had on the way home from church was eased by our love for each other. But we are still a man and a woman, a black person and a white person with drastically different backgrounds. If this husband and wife have to rely on our deep love for one another to get toward the core of these issues, why would anyone else bother to have these conversations? There is too much involved and too much at stake, and seemingly there is more to lose than there is to gain.
But Laura and I should not have needed to have this conversation at all. The travesty behind our predicament is the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Christian churches are heavily single ethnicity gatherings (I hear your exception, people in Hawaii!). It’s as if we Christians believe that the first rule when establishing a church is “Gather a bunch of people who look like you.”
I know that historically there are some very good reasons for some single ethnicity churches. There are also some very bad reasons. And many of the original good reasons are now obsolete. It is time to examine them and to examine our own hearts. Don’t be mistaken; worship with people who do not look like us is not simply for the benefit of this interracial couple. I believe it is essential to the movement of God’s Good News.
And whether or not you agree with me, are you willing to chase down anything in your congregation that would make a visitor feel unwelcome in your church?
Despite the potential landmines, we can exercise the Good News. It took the fierce, dedicated, patient love of a husband and wife to get Laura and me to a deeper level of understanding on this issue. But we Christians claim a love that is even deeper, broader, and more powerful.