Worship Wars11: Racism in the Church
Friday, January 25, 2008– These are the chronicles of my days serving a small, elderly, traditional, Southern Baptist Church as the bi-vocational pastor, 1992-2007. Since the stories seem to focus on the bad things that happened, instead of the good, I am not naming names, I have never even given the name of my church other than to say it was in Fort Worth TX. Any names that I give involve somebody who did something good, and even then I just give first names. The entire 15 years I served as pastor was filled with problem after problem, fight after fight, so this blog is an effort on my part to work through the junk and perhaps arrive at a better understanding of what God was doing.
Since this week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, I thought I would add a blog about my experience with racism in the church. On a separate page of this blog I have included my background, so this post will deal exclusively with racial matters in the little church I was a part of.
When I began pastoring this church in 1992 the church was averaging about 65-70 and there were two black families in the church. The church hired nursery worker and her 4 girls were in the church and one family of 4 that lived near the church attended sporadically. Additionally, I learned that there had been a black man serve the church as Music Minister several years prior. There was one extended family that were Mexican and one older lady that was Mexican. The rest of us were white. So we were not a very diverse congregation but we were diverse enough to encourage me.
By the end of the first year the one black family that attended sporadically had left for a larger church, though the kids showed up once in a while through the years. The only racial issue that developed early on came to me from one of my deacons who was hispanic. He was a very godly man, a source of great encouragement to me, and, I thought, well respected by the congregation. He taught a men’s Sunday School class and his daughter and son in law were my friends and very supportive as a young couple. His son was my most faithful SS class member through the years. This man and his wife and 2 daughters and son in law all sang in the choir, making up the single largest contingent of the choir. He not only served as deacon, SS teacher and choir member, he also served as church treasurer after my first couple of years (more about the treasurer situation in a later blog). In short, this man was godly, faithful, encouraging, a leader by example and a workhorse. So what went wrong?
During the times we were without a music minister I had led the music in my first couple of years. But then one time somebody mentioned to me that this man had led the music before and might do it again, so I asked him. He gladly took the opportunity and he did a far better job than I. He could work with the choir and he had a good voice along with the sweet spirit he was known for and his enthusiasm, I soon was interested in asking him to take the job as music minister.
Although I never personally witnessed it, nor heard it, he told me that he did not think the congregation would want him to serve in that capacity. Apparently there was an undercurrent of either racism towards him or some form of disrespect from the old ladies of the choir towards him. After a while he no longer wanted to do the music. Though not proven, I suspect that some folks just very subtly said some things or expressed enough dissatisfaction that he got discouraged and quit leading the music.
More evidence of this subtle prejudice came a couple of years later as we tried to rejuvenate the Sunday School. This man was a great SS teacher. He studied the word and his delivery was very strong and passionate. I caught bits and pieces of his lessons through the years and was always blessed. He had done some lay preaching in some Mexican congregations and some translation in bi-lingual services.
He and I knew the church was problem filled and that it needed some major changes. He came up with a plan for a couples class for the older crowd and he presented it to the older adult SS department. They actually hooted him down in a very disrespectful manner. He was heartbroken and came into my office the next week to tell me that he and his family would be leaving the church that week. I was devastated. He was the most godly man in the church, he was exciting to be around, he was a thinker and a doer. His wife and kids and their kids were absolutely crucial to the younger adult department. I tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant that he could never gain the trust and respect of these people. Again he hinted that it may have been about race. He taught one more class with the older folk and told them he was leaving and why. Our church lost 10 faithful people that day and NOT ONE of the older folks came to me to urge me to do anything to get them back. It was almost, good bye and good riddance.
That was in the summer of 1998 I believe, and from that day on I absolutely felt like all was lost at our little church. In my pastorate, that was the one blow we received that I think sealed our doom as a congregation. Statistically, the church did decline steadily from that point on with a brief upswing around 2000 or so. I grieved a long time over the loss of this good man and his family and seriously considered leaving the church at that time. The Lord never opened another door, and we stayed.
Fast forward to 2005-6 for a couple of incidents that really let me know that there was some latent racism in the church. I believe it was in Feb. 2005, or maybe in the summer when the Sunday School material had a lesson on Racism. In the Adult III Ladies class (the source of many blessings and troubles) one lady came to me all upset because of how the material had been covered. Several comments from some of the other ladies really came across as racist and expressed a desire to keep the churches segregated. This was not the first time that this lady had brought some pretty serious concerns about the class to my attention. But this was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back and she left the class, took some time off from the church, but eventually came to back and participated in my class which was not age specific but tended to be the younger folks class.
Then in 2006 it was time for January Bible Study, an annual week long program in Southern Baptist life that focuses on studying one book of the Bible. This year the study was on the Gospel of Mark, but theproblem was that I had preached all the way through Mark just a couple of years prior. I thought the church should hear the study presented by somebody other than me. I sought the approval of the church for brining in an outside guest preacher to lead the study with about $200 as an honorarium. The church approved.
I had a friend who was a professor at the seminary who had already participated in some of the Men’s Suppers at our church and I knew he would do a great job; so I asked him and he agree. The Sunday in January finally arrived and he came in to give us a lead off sermon from Mark’s Gospel, and all went well. Or so I thought.
That night as we continued the study I noticed that attendance was considerably down from our normal Sunday night attendance. The rest of the week we had the lowest attendance ever for January Bible Study. I thought it was just because the older congregation was not as able to get out anymore. But no, a couple of the folks, including my mother and another older lady I really, really respect, told me that the others were not coming because our preacher for the week was a black man. Come to find out, that Sunday morning after I had dared to have a black man in the pulpit preaching (as opposed to just leading the music) one older family left the church never to return. (Well, now that I am gone, I have heard that they came back). I was stunned. This was unbelievable. This man was good enough to come to our Men’s Suppers with all the guys, but to ask him to preach was a no no!?
I have heard that Sunday mornings at 11:00 are the most racially segregated time in America. I guess I get it now.
Epilogue: My mom passed away about a little over a month ago. When we left the church in Feb. of 2007 she resigned her membership in disgust. By then her health was too frail to get out much anyway, so she never joined us at Redeemer Church. But when her end came, my brother and I chose to invite the preacher whom she chose to stand by during that quietly controversial period of shame in our church. He preached her funeral sermon and no active members of that church were in attendance, per her request.
I look forward to the day when the Lord comes back and we will all be so in love with Jesus that skin color will be a thing of beauty and not prejudice.