Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Church

Is Racism Still Real in the Church?
by Jan Johnson

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . . . I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . .

Most of us link the words of this familiar speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. to a time of bridge-building between races. Now, thirty years later, it's appropriate to ask if the longing expressed in these words has become reality in our culture, and especially in the church. Has the church -- those called out to become ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) -- done its job or is 11:00 AM on Sunday still the most segregated hour of the week?

Life has improved significantly for minorities, says Rev. Freddy Piphus, pastor of Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati. "We've been able to move past the doors of schools and corporate worlds. Neighborhoods have changed, but the overall acceptance of African-American people has not changed." Dr. John Rowe of Pacific Christian College agrees as he considers his suburban neighborhood. "Our cul-de-sac includes whites, blacks, Koreans and Chinese. We have block parties together, but on Sunday morning the Chinese drive into Los Angeles to the Chinese church; the black families go off to the black churches; the Koreans go to the Korean churches, and we go off to preach at a white church."

While such things as technology have soared ahead, race relations lag behind like a typewriter in the computer age, says Victoria Johnson of Milwaukee. She tells how she interviewed for a position as an administrative assistant for a church-operated counseling center. The director presented her resume to the center's board, who found her skills and background in counseling impressive. As the director invited her to come into the meeting for an interview, he said, "You've got the job. The interview is just a formality."

When Victoria walked into the room, however, she saw hushed, shocked faces. She found out later that after she left, the board members changed their minds because she was black. The church was located in a changing community and having an African-American woman in the front office would "draw more like her." Only after the director threatened to file a discrimination law suit did the board agree to hire Victoria.

Yet both Victoria and Rev. Piphus are quick to point out that racism occurs among all groups. "For example, the acceptance of white people from African-Americans needs improvement," says Rev. Piphus. "We are still somewhat bitter about what has taken place in the last three hundred years as a result of slavery. Not many of us have realized that if we're going to move forward, we have to take our eyes off the past."


Even though many Christians mean well, prejudice still colors behavior. Dinah Herrick, a nurse and married mother of two boys, came to the United States from the Philippines when she was eighteen and has always attended predominantly white churches. "It's as if I'm invisible. Few people greet me. After I taught Sunday school for two years, I wasn't honored like whites who had been teaching for six months. It's not that I wanted to be recognized, but it fit a pattern. The pastors say on the platform how they visited all the new members, but I was never visited. Church members will say, 'Look at our church. We're all different colors.' It's as if they're meeting a quota so they can feel good about the church. But look at the leadership--it's all white, just like the corporate world. There's no difference."

Why do the church's values resemble the world's values in this area? Separatism occurs more by default than anything else, says Rick Talbott, minister at a chuch in a Hispanic community. "We say everyone is welcome, but there's not an intentional effort to include people of other colors. There's no strategy. The leaders don't hit themselves on the forehead and say, How are we going to get Hispanics into the church since our community is Hispanic? Instead, they say, Should we sell the building and move out? Why aren't these people coming here?"

In addition, issues besides skin-color put up walls. The language barrier is a difficult one. "Our older whites get a bad rap sometimes," says Dan Ellis, minister of a church which includes an English-speaking congregation, a Cambodian congregation, a Spanish-speaking congregation and a Korean congregation. "It's devastating to go down to the grocery store and find they're living in a foreign country where the clerk doesn't speak English. We need to help them process the pain of losing the security of feeling comfortable."


In New Testament times, the church struggled to be a model of reconciliation in a first-century world of bitter hatred between Rome and oppressed nations, between Jews and Gentiles, between masters and their slaves of different ethnic backgrounds. It wasn't easy, however. In Acts, the Jewish disciples worked through cross-cultural issues with non-Jews and negotiated the non-essentials (Acts 6: 1-7; 10; 11:1-18; 15:1-35). The world today needs for the church to once again fulfill its purpose of preaching the message of reconciliation: "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, . . . His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility" (Eph. 2:14-16, NIV).

Moving forward means understanding that reconciliation stretches beyond integration or equality to a unity of spirit and purpose. Reconciliation begins with removing the "dividing wall of hostility" in one-on-one relationships. We imitate Christ by viewing the other person as one whom God loves dearly. In dealing with racism in her own life, Victoria Johnson has found, "Racism is a spiritual problem. We need to get in the prayer closet and ask God to reveal to us our attitudes of prejudice. When Christians seriously pray about this, we see a difference."

It's not a one-time prayer of self-examination either, but a constant request woven throughout the ups and downs of life. For example, when Rev. Piphus and his church leaders accepted the services of a volunteer counselor who was white, "it was then that I discovered that we're not quite over the racism we see on a daily basis. The counselor didn't do anything wrong, but still we wondered, How can this white person minister to a black person's needs? How can this white person understand our situation? Knowing this counselor tenderized the hearts of our congregation and prepared us to reach out to whites." Likewise, Dan Ellis has had to search himself. When the secretary at their church mentioned to him that he spoke more loudly to the Korean minister, Dan realized that like many people, he raised his voice when speaking to someone whose English was limited. It's as if they understand English better if it's spoken more loudly. In each relationship with someone of another race or culture, we need to ask God to show us if we're harboring unkind or stereotypical feelings.


If the church is going to provide a picture of reconciliation, Christians of all colors have to be pro-active. It isn't enough to walk one mile -- it will take walking two miles to make a difference in this culture. Here are some of the principles pro-active pray-ers have found to be helpful.

Reconciliation begins with people talking together in an environment in which everyone has pledged their allegiance to Jesus Christ and allowing Him to speak to them. Rev. Piphus suggests discussions between leaders of churches of different ethnic makeup. "This is much more than a multi-cultural workshop. You have to be willing to sit down and allow the art of listening to flow, to pray, to talk about issues. We need to admit that prejudices exist, that we have fears and frustrations."

Dan Ellis has spent time talking with the white members of their church about the trauma of their Cambodian people. "Some have lost family members, others have been plucked up out of rice patty and put in the city. Most of them feel more bewildered than we do. They don't understand the system. This helps the whites in our congregation see that we all have our gifts, and at this moment their gift is this building and their financial resources."

As Dan Ellis evaluates the harmony among the ministers of the four congregations in their church, he says the best thing has been eating out together. "Laughing and joking has helped us tremendously." Dinah Herrick tells how she has also benefited from casual moments. "When we came to the United States, the white pastor took us around to see the sights in Hollywood. Because we were sleepy with jet lag, we hardly heard anything he said, but almost twenty years later we still talk about how much he cared and what that meant to us. A white couple invited our family to dinner one time and it was great. They weren't curious about Filipinos, just about us."

Some churches are experimenting with multi-lingual services. John Rowe tells about a Cambodian/English service in which he preached. "The Cambodian pastor prepared the message and then he translated it on paper for me. We both preached his message that day, going back and forth paragraph by paragraph. He came after me, adding for the Cambodians whatever I added." These multi-lingual services (which use simultaneous translating equipment) are followed by a huge potluck dinner. Cambodian minister Christopher Lapel says, "Setting up together and cleaning up together builds relationships. We play volleyball and softball. We have relays carrying eggs and tug of war. We may not be able to say much to each other, but we are part of the same team."

Churches in changing communities have found the youth group a good place to begin as they encourage children who go to school with other races to bring kids of other races to church.

"The youth group is the hub of the wheel while our four congregations are the spokes," says Dan Ellis. "Ethnic people face the crisis that as their children move into American culture, they may leave the church behind. The English-speaking youth group helps with this."

Part of the way forward, as well, is to understand that unity can be costly. White members of a church in a changing community left when prayers were offered in Spanish and the newsletter article was translated into Spanish. That phrase, "I'm leaving because I'm not comfortable with this," denies the truth that spiritual unity can eventually transcend physical, cultural and racial relationships: "Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother" (Matt. 12:50).

  • So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed--we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
  • The dream of reconciliation is bigger than any civil rights leader or even the melting-pot American dream. It's God's dream, stated well in the words of an often-quoted, Jewish missionary: "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:27-28).


This article originally appeared in The Lookout, January 15, 1995.


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