Pundits have asked whether Barack Obama is black enough, and on the surface this seems to be an issue of racial identity. But are they talking about race or culture?
I ask this question because the map of Forest Park has changed dramatically in the last 20 years when it comes to churches and their ethnic makeup. During the last two decades, eight new congregations have moved into our village and none of them is even close to what you would call integrated in a manner that reflects the racial composition of Forest Park.
Living Word Christian Center: 95% black
New Harvest Christian Fellowship: 90% Hispanic
Chicagoland Christian Center: 80% black
Hope Tabernacle Community Church: 100% black
Peace, Mercy and Charity Church: 100% black
New Generations Ministries: 95% black
Thai Community Church: 85% Thai
Wesley Telegu Church: 90% Indian
Sunday morning has been called “the most segregated hour in the week,” and almost all of it is voluntary. Why is that, especially when you note that all six of the older churches in town consider their minority members to be kind of a badge of honor? These days it is EC, i.e. ecclesiastically correct, to have minority members.
Why is there so much Sabbath segregation when all of the eight newer congregations in Forest Park pride themselves on welcoming all people? Pastor Bill Teague at Hope Tabernacle even says it is part of his church’s mission to be a multi-cultural congregation.
Part of the answer, of course, is racism. Unfortunately there is in all of us at least a residual tendency to judge books by their covers instead of taking the time to discover their content.
But then, how do you explain different races working together in harmony on athletic teams or at work? After a touchdown, you’ll see a black quarterback hugging a white receiver as if they were bosom buddies. An Asian sales rep will chat with an Hispanic entrepreneur as if they were family.
As I and colleagues around town have struggled to answer that question, all we seem to have come up with is that it is more a matter of culture than it is of race. If you define culture as the mix of values, attitudes, norms and customs of a group of people, then what matters most is not the color of your skin but in which group’s culture do you feel most comfortable.
Several years ago, an attractive, successful black woman transferred her membership from Living Word to my small Lutheran church. When I asked her why, she answered that at our little church she felt at home. It wasn’t that people in my congregation were any more caring or Spirit filled than members of other local faith communities. It was more a matter of chemistry than color. She valued starting on time, controlling one’s emotions and knowing everyone in the congregation. Race was not a factor.
The reality, however, is that often race and culture go together, and culture can be very subtle. When Thais come to the Thai Community Church on Sunday afternoon, they can expect to hear their own language, eat their own food and have other adults discipline their kids the way they would. More important than that, they will sing, pray and hear sermons in their heart language.
A church’s the heart language might have more to do with music, say gospel vs. traditional. In other congregations heart language might be defined as how free worshipers can be in expressing their emotions.
That’s one reason why there are now five black churches in town. If it were just a matter of race, they’d all be over at Living Word, since it was the first one here.
When people criticize Obama for not being black enough, they’re talking about the experiences embedded in his bones more than the pigmentation in his skin. In trying to figure out why which people go to what church, culture might be a more salient concept than race.