By Laura Acuff, Opinion Editor
Each Sunday, the church doors open. Members file in, greet each other and exchange pleasantries. They sit in pews, sing, pray and take communion. In a different part of Abilene on a different street and in a different building, more church members do the same.
Both churches worship below a “Church of Christ” sign. But in appearances, the crowds stand in stark contrast – one crowd mostly white, the other mostly black. Each church maintains a distinctly different racial demographic.
Both churches worship the same God in many of the same ways, yet nearly 50 years after the American Civil Rights Movement, nearly 150 years after the Civil War, Texas Churches of Christ still face voluntary segregation.
Race relation issues in the church trace all the way back to the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, said Dr. Edward Robinson, preacher at N 10th & Treadaway Church of Christ and assistant professor of history in the history department and the College of Biblical Studies. Author of three historical books and two anthologies on the subject, Robinson said freed African Americans demonstrated their freedom through means such as moving residences, changing their names and establishing their own churches.
White people and their churches encouraged the establishment of black churches, sometimes sponsoring an evangelist or preacher to take the good news specifically to black communities, according to Robinson’s book Show Us How You Do It, which documents the endeavors of black evangelist Marshall Keeble and the “rise of black Churches of Christ in the United States.”
Although the distinction separated churches down the dividing line of race, Robinson said the separation served a purpose a century later when black churches led the peaceful Civil Rights Movement to reclaim African-American rights guaranteed after the Civil War.
Even separated, black and white Churches of Christ supported each other to some extent, with members attending sister churches’ revivals. Robinson, who grew up in a black Church of Christ, remembers attending such Gospel meetings of the local white Church of Christ as a youth.
“Just a handful would go and support them, and the same was true the other way around, their coming to be with us,” Robinson said. “But it was nothing really substantial, nothing really consistent.”
Despite limited cooperation, Robinson said an attitude of privacy existed between the two churches. Although the two churches coexisted, mingling did not occur between 100 percent of the churches’ members, only between those Robinson said were “just a few concerned blacks and a few concerned whites.”
Although Robinson’s community was already largely integrated during his growing-up years, the churches upheld certain boundaries.
“There was just a mutual understanding that in our black congregation, we’re going to control our affairs without any kind of white interference, and we expected them to do the same,” Robinson said.
Having distinct white and black churches met specific needs immediately after the Civil War, ministering to people who could not yet relate to one another. But as time progressed, dividing lines between churches remained generally unmoved, despite Constitutional amendments giving African Americans status as citizens and the right to vote and the advances of the Civil Rights Movement. Now, Robinson said he thinks the barriers should come down.
“I think there is now a realization that God really never intended for there to be a separate white church [and] a separate black church,” Robinson said.
Beyond the opportunity to get to know individuals outside one’s own ethnic group, bringing varying perspectives to the Christian experience, church integration serves as a powerful testimony that Christians recognize “everybody is somebody” in God’s sight, Robinson said. Integrating churches would communicate to the world a Christian commitment to take seriously the call to love and bring the Gospel message to everyone.
George Pendergrass, director of Multicultural Enrichment and minister of worship at Southern Hills Church of Christ, agreed churches would benefit from the added skills and abilities diversity inherently brings.
“Diversity always brings about more divergent and increased abilities that were not there before,” Pendergrass said. “When we allow those differences to be seen, to be acknowledged, we make it possible to enhance anything we do.”
Every group has different inherent strengths and weaknesses, Pendergrass said. When an individual from one group falls short, someone from another group can pick up the slack, increasing collective experience and productivity.
Basic benefits of integration can be observed even in the more common integration of generational experiences within single-race churches, Pendergrass said. For example, while the youth population of a church might bring progressive ideas, older church members might uphold the importance of regular giving.
Pendergrass said he thinks modern inhibitors to racial integration among churches stem primarily from fear.
“There’s great amount of fear that we have of the unknown and a lot of fear that is steeped in racism and ignorance,” Pendergrass said.
Specifically for the Abilene area, he said a fear of confrontation limits racial integration.
“The problem is the fact that we are not together,” Pendergrass said. “The issue is not that we don’t know the problem; it is not that we don’t have solutions to the problem; it’s that we’re afraid to try. We’re afraid to confront, and we’re afraid to let the chips fall where they may for where we need to stand to make a difference.”
Addressing the segregation issue will take “courageous leaders” willing to work from the top, down, transforming church infrastructure to first diversify church leadership, making possible the goal of meeting the needs of a diverse church, Pendergrass said.
“Sometimes you have to start where you can start,” Pendergrass said. “You know it may not be diversity with ethnicity and race that you start with; maybe class, you know that’s a huge one. Slowly but surely, you conquer the others. You begin to conquer gender barriers. Then you begin to conquer racial barriers. So you know, one thing at a time.”
Robinson said work and prayer are necessary to address the issue of racial segregation in the church. Commitment of church members and leaders to exploring racial differences and boundaries eventually can unite what is now the segregated church into one body in Christ.
“It’s impossible to be colorblind, but we can be as one,” Robinson said.