22 May 2023

Why I went to an all-white church.

When I was 11 years old, my family moved to a city in California which was about 60 percent white, 40 percent Latino, 10 percent every other ethnicity combined. Same as much of California south of Sacramento.

New city means new church. Mom went looking for churches which’d be a good fit for young children; I’m the eldest of four. We tried a few. We ended up at a certain church; in another article I referred to this particular place as “Maypole Church,” and I don’t see any point in changing its name again. Maypole was very Fundamentalist, very dispensationalist, and very sexist—all of which I no longer am. But the folks there did make sure we kids got to know our bibles, which is the important thing.

Oh, and Maypole was super racist. Which we didn’t know at the time… but the fact they happened to be 100 percent white should’ve tipped us off.

Every so often, Maypole would be 99 percent white: A black, Latino, or Asian family would visit. There’s an Air Force base nearby, and white airmen would invite their nonwhite friends to come worship with them at Maypole. But within a few months, these nonwhite friends would stop attending. They’d go elsewhere.

I never knew why. Never thought to ask why. Never assumed it was about race. Never thought to ask. Yep, I was a clueless white kid.

Never gave the racial issue any thought at all… till I started to invite my high school friends to Maypole’s youth group. My high school was right next to the Air Force base, and was just as integrated as the U.S. Air Force. I’ve always been raised in multiethnic neighborhoods, and (other than a brief stint in the country) always lived in multiethnic neighborhoods. I never solely made friends with white kids. And most of the high school kids were fellow Christians, and if they didn’t have a youth group, I invited them to mine. So they came—for a few weeks. Then stopped. Found excuses not to come along.

ME. “Why don’t you wanna go?”
THEY. “That group ain’t right.”
ME. “Ain’t right? What ‘ain’t right’ about it?”
THEY. [uncomfortably] “It just ain’t right.”

I assumed it had to do with doctrines. Like I said, Maypole was very Fundamentalist. Maybe more so than they were comfortable with. My church wouldn’t compromise, but maybe theirs would, like the rest of all the other churches. You know; typical Fundie paranoia.

Then I finally invited a white high school friend to church. He wasn’t Christian; he was a pagan who was open to the idea. He didn’t stop attending after two weeks; he stuck around. Largely because he really wanted to have sex with one of our youth group’s girls. I never saw him make a decision for Jesus, but I did see him invite a number of his other friends to the group. He did a better job recruiting kids than I did. So that’s a win… I guess?

First he invited a white friend, who stuck around a month… till he realized Christian girls weren’t quite as loose as he’d prefer. Then a Latino friend, who stayed three weeks. But yep, as you could guess: Left because “That group ain’t right.”

Every Spring Break our youth group took a “mission trip” to Baja California Norte to pitch in at a Mexican church’s Vacation Bible School. There, I saw for myself how many of our kids were super racist towards Mexicans. Our youth pastor cracked down on it as best he could. (Well, considering how certain Maypole parents would get him fired if he ever kicked their kids out of the group.) Still, this was finally when I realized just what my nonwhite friends meant by “That group ain’t right.” Indeed they weren’t right.

And as we know, kids don’t become racist in a vacuum. They get it from their parents.

I’m not accusing the leadership of Maypole Church of racism. Not the pastors; probably not their deacons. But obviously there were just enough racists in my youth group to block any outreach I did—or anyone did—to nonwhites in my high school, in our city, everywhere. I presumed my church was a safe place, as all churches should be. It wasn’t.

I stopped going to Maypole in 1991. Last I checked, they’re still predominantly white.

Is it because of racism? Usually yes.

I presumed my church wasn’t racist because I’m not racist. It’s a naïve assumption, but a common one. I see it all the time among Christians who can’t for the life of them explain why their church just seem to retain any nonwhite attendees… so they blame the nonwhites. “They’re more comfortable with their own.”

It wasn’t till my college years that my black friends finally made me aware of the crap they still deal with on a way-too-regular basis. And at first I stupidly figured, “Okay, it probably happens, but you’ve gotta be exaggerating about how often it happens. The Man isn’t constantly out to get you.” Then one day I was in the car when they were pulled over for driving while black. And I watched as their trouble evaporated the instant the cop realized a well-spoken white kid was in the back seat, watching his friend get hassled for no reason at all.

This casual institutional racism was behavior I was clueless about. I would’ve remained clueless about if I didn’t have black friends who trusted me enough to let me see it happen. I’d’ve assumed my limited experience was the norm; there’s gotta be some valid, crime-related reason black kids get pulled over so often; the elders of my church would never, ever take a black visitor aside and politely but firmly suggest, “Have you visited [LOCAL NONWHITE CONGREGATION]? I think you’d be a much better fit there.”

I remember a friend—years later, in different ministry—in tears as he finally told us coworkers what he’d been dealing with all summer long. Two guys had joined the ministry for the summer, and whenever the rest of us were out of earshot, they harassed him with racial slurs. Constantly. The rest of us had no clue. (Had we seen anything, these guys would be so fired.) So… why didn’t my friend come forward immediately? He thought he could tough it out. Be the bigger man. Turn the other cheek, like Jesus instructed. But worst of all… he feared he might not get believed. Because you know white people: If we don’t experience it, we assume it’s not all that serious.

Well, it is. Racism’s a persistent cancer in the American church.

Many racists recognize their views are sin. But they have ’em anyway. And regularly test the waters to see what they can get away with, to see if there are any fellow racists around: They’ll let slip a racial slur, or try to tell—begging our pardon, but hoping we’re not at all offended—a racist joke. They’ll dogwhistle, meaning they use a phrase their fellow racists will immediately recognize, but clueless white kids like I was would never notice.

Sometimes they’ll insist they’re not racist—and sincerely think they’re not! Because they don’t hate other ethnicities. Oh, they don’t love them either; what they’d really prefer is if everyone stayed with their own kind in a sort of totally voluntary segregation. Although when it comes right down to it, they’re not doing a whole lot to keep it voluntary. Not with their subtle warnings of “Y’know, those people might be more comfortable in a church full of their own kind.”

They’ve been justifying their sinful views ever since slaveowners first decided Paul’s letter to Philemon doesn’t apply to them: They didn’t have to share Jesus with their slaves, and treat ’em like Christian sisters and brothers. Slaves were… uh… intellectually inferior, ’cause race. They tried calling it “the curse of Cain,” till someone who actually read a bible realized Cain’s descendants are either all dead, drowned in Noah’s flood… or Noah’s ancestors intermarried with Cain’s descendants, resulting in everyone being a descendant of Cain. They’ve since used “the curse of Ham,” whose descendants, they claim, were divinely decreed to serve whites. Ignoring the fact it’s actually the curse of Canaan, Ge 9.25-27 and this story of a curse was only meant to foretell how the Semites dispossessed the Canaanites of their land. But as racists demonstrate time and again, they don’t care in the least about biblical context. Whatever supports their evil, they’ll gleefully accept.

Now when you got a church who’s 100 percent white, despite very different demographics in its neighborhood or city, it’s a sure sign of racism. I used to naïvely say, “Oh we don’t know it’s racism; maybe there are other factors!” But every time I bothered to investigate, nope, it’s totally racism.

“But the people in my white church aren’t racist!” No; you’re not racist. (Probably.) And as far as you know your friends aren’t racist. (Probably.) But here’s the dirty little secret: It only takes one racist. One person who’s made it their evil mission to inform every nonwhite visitor, “You’re not welcome,” and imply everybody else in the church feels the very same way, even when they don’t.

It only takes one racist, but I can also guarantee you they’re not the only one.

This is why I said there were just enough racists at Maypole to drive my nonwhite friends away. And those families still go to that church.

Demographics aren’t irrelevant.

Ever compared your church’s demographics to those of your city?

Most churches don’t, ’cause they already know they don’t match. In the United States we still have white churches, black churches, Latino churches. We even have ethnic white churches: Churches full of people of Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Russian, or other ancestries. There are even white churches which share denominations with black churches. You’ll found a town with a white Southern Baptist church, and a black Southern Baptist church, and they never get together.

There’s only one legitimate reason for having churches with these ethnic differences: Language. If you only speak English you are of course limited to English-speaking congregations. Lots of Californians are bilingual, and can go to either English-speaking or Spanish-speaking churches if they choose. But if your English or Spanish is lousy, and your first language is Korean, of course there are Korean-speaking churches… which are of course full of Korean-Americans and Koreans. Stands to reason.

But beyond the language barrier, the demographics of any given church should reflect the population of the geographical area. If your city’s 50 percent Latino, your church—when you’re properly sharing the gospel indiscriminately—should be roughly 50 percent Latina. (’Cause men suck at church attendance. But that’s a whole other article.)

If there are less than 100 people in a church, of course the demographics won’t be exact. My last church was only about 20 people. We were disproportionately white, black, and south Asian. Small numbers skew things.

But beyond these factors, there’s no reason whatsoever for a church to not mirror their community. If your church doesn’t, start asking, seriously, why.

Of course, I’ll tell you why: You got racists. Duh.

Tell any church leader this, and they’ll often be in denial. They’re not racist! (And so on.) I usually have to remind ’em: The leadership isn’t the church. The people are. The leaders may have all sorts of noble, Christlike goals for the church… but the people have their own ideas, and the people are the church. The leaders might want to be a multiethnic, diverse congregation like Christ Jesus wants… and a few white nationalist guys in your congregation have other goals, and you’ve no idea how much they’ve been quietly, successfully undermining their leaders. And Jesus.

So how can you possibly fix this problem? It’s actually the simplest of solutions: Put nonwhites into leadership.

Not token positions. (What’re you even doing with token positions? Get rid of those.) Put nonwhites on your church board. Appoint nonwhites as pastors. Give ’em real ministries and real authority. Positions where every single person in the church has to deal with them. Including the racists.

Worst case: The racists will freak out over the very idea, fight it, try to overthrow the church leadership… and might even succeed. Best case, they’ll repent. Most often they just go deeper into hiding, hoping it’ll all blow over; or they find some pretense to leave.

Nope, you don’t need your preachers to compose a dozen sermons about how racism is bad. (As if they work.) Don’t have to rebuke racism wherever you see it—although do keep right on denouncing it. Don’t have to rewrite the church’s bylaws. Don’t have to specifically target nonwhite neighborhoods for evangelism. When nonwhites are among your church’s leaders, it visibly declares to your community, “We aren’t kidding about how everyone is welcome.” And your church will grow to mirror the community.

Thus far I’ve been mainly speaking about all-white churches. For all-black churches, the way they can best fight racism is the very same tactic: They gotta put a nonblack person in leadership. And they’ll have their own racists fighting it: “You’ve taken the one safe space our people have anymore, and you’ve let in the enemy.” Yeah, it’s a racist statement no matter who says it. But if you want a diverse church like Jesus wants, you gotta do it. Actions speak volumes.

Once you have diversity in your leadership, start paying attention to how diverse your church becomes. Or doesn’t: If you find a small group in your church is exclusively white, find out why. Or if everybody but whites go to the youth group, find out why. Be vigilant. It’s the only way to stamp out your church’s race problem: Give it nowhere to grow.

Lastly: White people, K-LOVE is too white. (Well it is.) Stop going to them for all your church music. Diversify the music. Diversify your resources. Diversify the ministries you support. No, it doesn’t mean you gotta settle for inferior stuff because you’re trying for inclusivity. There’s a lot of quality out there. You just haven’t noticed. Start noticing. Find some people who speak to more experiences than just your own.

Start creating a church which resembles heaven—where everybody’s truly welcome.