Why I went to an all-white church.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 November

Wasn’t intentional. On the contrary: Lack of thought did it. And perpetuates it.

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 everything else. Same as much of California south of Sacramento.

I’m the oldest of four, and Mom went looking for churches which’d be a good fit for young children. We tried a few, and ended at a Evangelical Free Church, which I have elsewhere called Maypole Church. The church had an excellent Christian education program. I don’t agree with good deal of their brand of Fundamentalism any longer, but they did make sure we kids got to know our bibles, which is the important thing.

This particular church happened to be 100 percent white.

Every so often they’d be 99 percent white. A black, Latino, or Asian family would visit. There’s an Air Force base nearby, and airmen would get invited to Maypole by their white friends. But within a few months they’d stop attending; they’d go elsewhere. I never knew why. Never thought to ask why. Never assumed it was about race… ’cause I wasn’t bigoted.

Didn’t give the racial issue any thought 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 as integrated as the U.S. military is. I was raised in multiethnic neighborhoods, so I didn’t solely make friends with white kids. But most were fellow Christians, and if they didn’t have a youth group, I invited them to mine. They came. For a few weeks. Then stopped. Found excuses not to come along.

I’d ask ’em why they didn’t wanna come to my church anymore.

“That group ain’t right,” they’d tell me.

I wanted to know what was wrong with them.

They didn’t wanna get specific. “It just ain’t right.”

I assumed it had to do with doctrines: My church was more Fundamentalist than they were. My church wouldn’t compromise; theirs would. You know, Fundie thinking.

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 after two weeks: He stuck around. Largely ’cause he wanted to hook up with one of the youth group girls. And though I never saw him make a decision for Jesus, he turned round and invited some of his friends to the group. First a white friend, who stuck around a month (till he realized Christian girls weren’t as loose as he’d like). Then a Latino friend, who only stayed three weeks, but left ’cause “That group ain’t right.”

Every Spring Break the youth group took a “mission trip” to Baja California and help out at a Mexican church’s Vacation Bible School. There, I saw for myself how many of the kids were super racist towards Mexicans. Our youth pastor cracked down on it as much as he could (given how certain parents would have his job if he kicked their kids out of the group). Still, this was finally when I realized what my nonwhite friends meant by “That group ain’t right.” No they weren’t.

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

Nope, not accusing Maypole Church of racism. Not the pastors; probably not the 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, anywhere. I assumed my church was a safe place, as all churches should be. They weren’t.

I stopped going to Maypole in 1991. Last I checked, they’re still 100 percent white.

Is it because of racism? Usually yes.

Like I said, I assumed the church wasn’t racist because I’m not racist. It’s a naïve assumption. But a common one. My black friends gradually made me aware of the crap they still deal with on a way-too-regular basis. At first I foolishly figured, “You’re just exaggerating. You’re pretending the Man is constantly out to get you.” Then I was in the car when they were pulled over for driving while black… and watched how 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 was behavior I was clueless about. And 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 they harassed him with racial slurs whenever the rest of us were out of earshot. The rest of us had no clue. (Had we seen anything, these guys would be so fired.) 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… that he might not get believed. Because you know white people: If we don’t experience it, we assume it’s not a serious problem.

Well, it is. Racism’s a persistent cancer in the American church. Some racists recognize their views are sin. Others figure it’s not “politically correct”—’cause “P.C.” is their codeword for “Guess I can’t be racist out in public.” In both cases they hide. Sometimes in plain sight; sometimes not. Sometimes you’ll catch ’em making assumptions based on ethnic stereotypes instead of actually knowing anyone of that ethnicity. Sometimes they test the waters to see what they can get away with: 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. Sometimes they give subtle warnings of “Y’know, those people might be more comfortable in a church full of their own kind.” And sometimes they’re not subtle in the slightest.

They’ve been justifying their view ever since slaveowners first decided Philemon didn’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 of race. They tried calling it “the curse of Cain,” till someone who actually read a bible realized all Cain’s descendants were likely drowned in Noah’s flood. 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 curse was only 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 context. They’ll accept whatever defends their evil.

When you’ve got a church who’s 100 percent white, despite greatly different demographics in the neighborhood or city, I used to naïvely say, “Well, we don’t know it’s because of racism. Maybe there are other factors.” Yet every time I’ve bothered to investigate, I’ve discovered nope, it’s totally racism.

“But the people in my white church aren’t racist!” No; you’re not racist. And as far as you know your friends aren’t racist. 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 it’s how everybody else in the church feels, even if they don’t. Except seldom are they the only one.

This is why I said there were just enough racists at Maypole to drive my nonwhite friends away. Only takes one… and I know for a fact there was more than one. (Still are. 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, and Asian 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—and yet in the same town there’s a white church and a black one, and they never get together.

There’s only one legitimate reason for segregating a service: Language. If you only speak English, of course you’re limited to the English-speaking churches. Lots of Californians are bilingual, and can go to either English-speaking or Spanish-speaking churches if they choose.

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—if you’re sharing the gospel properly—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 Hindi. 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 church has their own ideas. You wanna be a multiethnic, diverse congregation. But a few guys in your congregation have a bunch of white nationalist internet friends, and you have no idea they’ve been quietly undermining your goals.

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.) Get qualified elders, even if you have to import ’em from other churches, and give ’em real ministries, with real authority. Positions where every single person in the church has to deal with them.

In the worst cases, the racists will freak out and try to overthrow the church leadership. Best cases, they’ll repent. Most often they go deeper into hiding, hoping it’ll all blow over; or they find some pretense to leave.

Nope, don’t have to preach a dozen sermons on 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 policies. Don’t have to target nonwhite neighborhoods for evangelism. Nonwhites in leadership visibly show your community, “We aren’t kidding about how everyone is welcome.” And your church will grow to mirror their community.

Thus far I’ve been mainly speaking about all-white churches. For all-black churches, sometimes it’s the idea adding whites means you’ve taken the one safe space black people have anymore, and let in the enemy. Which (though white people did start it) is also racism. You want diversity, you gotta put a white person in leadership. Actions speak volumes.

“Well, first we gotta purge all the racists.” Say it’s even possible: Even so, blacks will correctly recognize an all-white leadership doesn’t know how they think about many issues. Same with any person who’s a minority in their church. As much as a homogenous leadership will insist they’re sympathetic or open-minded, when they aren’t diverse, they’re deficient. And talk is cheap.

That done, pay attention to how involved every ethnic group becomes. If a bible study group is exclusively Latino (and it’s not because it’s in Spanish) find out why. If only whites attend the singles’ group, find out why. 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.