By Tom Krattenmaker
Lawrence and Trenton are adjacent. But given the different racial demographics of these two New Jersey towns — the former is predominantly white and the latter 52% black— they might as well be a hundred miles apart. Such is the magnitude of the chasm crossed by Lawrence’s David Moriah and Trenton’s Shiloh Baptist Church, where Moriah is not only the sole white male member but also has been accepted into the highly respected rank of deacon.
Credit goes to the black congregation in Trenton and the new white deacon for their commitment to racial reconciliation. Too bad a story like this stands out as such an anomaly. The Christian church in this country remains disturbingly segregated. But as Moriah has learned, connecting with the black church tradition can transform your perspective on race — whether you’re religious or not.
Like most evangelicals, Moriah, 61, attended heavily white churches until relocation to New Jersey set him and his wife, Deborah, on a quest for a new church home. Shiloh Baptist was where they found it. One of Moriah’s fellow deacons at Shiloh, George Poole, describes the church’s worship experience in moving terms. “We (black members) come out of a past, and even a present, that bears so many injustices,” he says. “Because of that, our worship experience is different. The church is where we can go to be free and lay our burdens on the altar.”
Moriah says those Sunday mornings, plus his fellowship with Poole and the other church members, have given him a different view on race. The killing of three blacks and wounding of two others in Tulsa this month by two white suspects “would have barely registered for me before my Shiloh experience,” Moriah told me in an e-mail. “It would have seemed like something far away, happening to folks who weren’t ‘my people.’ Not so anymore. I prayed for the community in Tulsa, now ‘my people,’ and I found myself thinking of my brothers and sisters at Shiloh and realizing they — we? — could be similarly victimized by the evil of racism.”
Moriah and his pastor, Darrell Armstrong, express disappointment that so few white Christians belong to racially mixed or predominantly minority congregations. An estimated 5% of U.S. churches are racially integrated — a reality hard to square with Christian teachings like this from the apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Moriah’s journey has put him in touch with another dimension of black church isolation — the separation from white progressives. The secularism that tends to prevail in those ranks is part of the growing tension between African Americans, on one hand, and white liberals and progressives, on the other.
Not up on this rift? Consider the argument that broke out when the Occupy Wall Street movement got involved in the Million Hoodie march in New York last month. Instead of focusing on racial injustices and the killing of Trayvon Martin— the purpose of the demonstration — the largely white Occupy forces introduced many of their own grievances, rendering the march less coherent and irritating many of the black demonstrators in the process.
Here in the progressive unchurched mecca of Portland, Ore., white gentrification of the city’s northeast quarter has severely strained the area’s black churches. Portland Monthly, in a wrenching report on the phenomenon earlier this year, documented the bitterness of black church members and pastors forced to move their congregations, or struggling to hang on in their old neighborhoods — even using vans to transport displaced members from parts of the city where they have been pushed.
Wilbert Hardy, pastor of Highland Christian Center in northeast Portland, noticed that when gentrification set in around his church, the generally white newcomers showed no interest in connecting with the black congregation. As he told Portland Monthly, “They did not want religion.”
An overstatement perhaps, but not a bad assessment of the view of many white progressives. Shunning religion is their right, but it’s a shame when you realize the role faith played in the civil rights struggle — a chapter in history that progressives acclaim — and when you realize how much the church still means to many African Americans today.
Shiloh’s embrace of the Moriahs furnishes an uplifting example of how this relationship-building can, and must, go both ways. As pastor Darrell Armstrong puts it, “Our church doors are always open to anybody who wishes to seek out a deeper relationship with God.” By embracing the Moriahs, the congregation members has shown that they mean it.
The tendency of many progressives to be dismissive of faith, Moriah says, “misses a natural connection to communities like Shiloh that share progressives’ commitment to economic and social justice.” He now believes we have “three separate and non-interacting orbits in America today: secular progressives, the ‘Christian Right’ and the black church. Seldom do they even talk with each other, much less learn and grow from meaningful interaction.”
White progressives with a religion grudge would do the liberal tradition prouder if they recalled the strength the church has provided to many African Americans, and if they honored what the black church has done for all of us by serving as a catalyst for human and civil rights.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is finishing a book on the emerging new faces of evangelicalism in politics and culture.