The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called churches "the most segregated major institution in America." In a Q&A session after a speech at Western Michigan University in 1963, he said:
"The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. ... I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."
Churches are still largely segregated, at least in part because people feel more comfortable worshipping with those most like them -- alike not only in skin color but in class, culture, musical taste and theological outlook. It's understandable but unfortunate, since it robs us of the riches we can find in other outlooks and other forms of worship.
The New York Times reported recently on a church that was confronted with the strangeness of "others" but, instead of locking them out or running away, welcomed them and was transformed. An influx of refugees to Clarkston, Ga., in the past decade resulted in between a third and a half of the residents being foreign-born. Many long-time residents fled, and Clarkston Baptist Church faced a crisis as its membership fell from 600 to 100.
At first the church leased space to Filipinos, Vietnamese and Africans for their own services. Then the groups were invited to merge into the church, renamed Clarkston International Bible Church. Becoming a multiethnic house of worship has required compromise from everyone, but the result is this: The church is thriving.
Those who still think of evangelical churches as hotbeds of bigotry might be surprised to learn that they are, instead, on the leading edge of ethnic mixing. A recent study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that "In many large evangelical congregations, the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed."
They do this for the simple reason that they believe it is what the Bible tells them God wants. Faith overcomes fear of change, and fear of the "other." As Clarkston's pastor, the Rev. Phil Kitchin says, “Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations. So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”
King called on the church to "preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body." Here's a church that is doing both. Is yours?