In the wake of police violence that led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the protests that followed, religious leaders are again confronting the challenges racism continues to pose for them and their communities. This is nothing new for African American clergy, who have long been active in combating racism. But there is also growing evidence that white Christian leaders are taking these issues more seriously. A December 2014 poll by Lifeway Research found that “9 in 10 (91 percent) white pastors say racial reconciliation is mandated by the Gospel.”
Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), was especially unequivocal: “A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.” In late March, the SBC hosted “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation Summit” in Nashville, to discuss and plan for greater interracial unity in its churches. “There is a biblical command and a national command that we hold all people equal,” said John M. Perkins, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. He added that the best way to overcome racism “is to develop multi-cultural churches.”
Of course, the SBC event was only one prominent effort out of many that religious communities have organized this past year to confront racism and diversity issues. In January, the United Church of Christ released a pastoral letter on racism as part of conversations it hosts “to confront the sin of racism in our desire to see the Church live and be as one.” Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church’s Wesley Theological Seminary hosted a panel of white and black church leaders on how faith communities can address the U.S. racial divide. The bishops of the Episcopal Church met on March 17 and announced they will write their most far-reaching pastoral letter on the “pervasive sin” of racism. The letter, according to Bishop Todd Ousley, will discuss the legacy of slavery and the “contemporary experience of the results of racism and divisions in this country and elsewhere around race.”
Although racial reconciliation has become a buzzword, its meaning in today’s social and political landscape eludes easy definition. The old adage, that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, still rings true today. According to Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, churches are 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods they inhabit and 20 times more segregated than nearby public schools. One sociological study, to which Emerson contributed, notes that all Christian traditions—Catholic, Mainline, and Evangelical—are “hypersegregated.”
To ministers who are sensitive to the religious injunction to overcome racism but who understand their institutional reality, the tremendous challenge posed by racism weighs heavily upon their minds. Amid this confusion, many church leaders wonder what is to be done. Yet too often another equally important question gets ignored: What has been tried already?
IN 1946, THE AGING scholar and pioneering civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois observed a church on the West Coast, which he noted was doing what some might deem “strange and unpleasant things.” What he meant was that this church, to his astonishment, was bringing people of different races together. “I noted in my recent visit a movement which has no parallel so far as I know in other parts of the United States; and that is an attempt at interracial churches; at actually welcoming into a Christian church representatives of various races of people and carrying on the services and activities with reference to the well-being of these people.”
Du Bois was speaking of the interracial Church of Christian Fellowship of Los Angeles, a church planted in 1946 by Harold M. Kingsley. But he could have said much the same thing about three other California faith communities: the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, the South Berkeley Community Church, and the Albany Fellowship Church. These were experimental churches, which self-consciously brought together clergy and laity across racial lines.
As one congregation put it in WWII-era language, “Some people call us a ‘mixed’ congregation, for we are of many races: Negro, Oriental, Caucasian. We come from many economic backgrounds. But we do not think of ourselves as ‘mixed.’ We are a homogeneous people, liking each other as people, and knit together in the belief that God’s wisdom does not tolerate the words, ‘minority’ and ‘prejudice.’”
These congregations started small but grew quickly. A newspaper reported that the South Berkeley Community Church had grown to 175 within a year of its founding in 1943 and “attendance at Sunday services averages 55% Negro, 40% white and a few Chinese, church records reveal.” In a few years it would reach a peak of about 300 members. Du Bois observed that the Los Angeles church’s chief pastor was black, one assistant pastor was a white Quaker, and another was of Japanese descent. They were integrated in both pew and pulpit.
These churches developed a multiculturalism that would become common later in the century. The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, for example, organized a choir that was “a United Nations in miniature, is demonstrating harmony—both musically and racially,” according to the church’s newsletter. The quintet, four men and one woman, went professional and organized a singing tour and put out a record. They were even invited to the United Nations cultural meetings as a model of racial harmony.
California’s interracial churches traced their roots to Philadelphia and to clergy who created the Philadelphia Fellowship in 1936 as a means to gather people from established churches, mostly black and white, to meet each other. It was modeled on the “Interracial Sunday” meetings, which began in the 1920s as a once-a-year gathering of congregations of different races. Its guiding assumption was that bringing people together would undo harmful stereotypes and reduce prejudice. Fellowships based on the Philadelphia model were also organized in Baltimore, New York, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. In the 1940s, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all boasted full-fledged interracial churches as well.
But California played a pioneering role. In the 1940s, racial tensions in California were mounting as African Americans migrated from the South in search of work in defense industries. The black population of Berkeley, for example, rose by more than 400 percent, while Oakland’s black population rose by more than 500 percent in the 1940s. During WWII, race riots in Detroit and New York left dozens dead and hundreds injured. In addition, virtually all people of Japanese descent—the vast majority of them American citizens—had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into internment camps. These events were on the minds of the founders of the interracial churches.
Alfred Fisk, a white philosophy professor, proposed founding an interracial church to the local Presbyterian board as a way to alleviate mounting racial tensions in San Francisco. Fisk, an ordained Presbyterian minister, convinced the famous African-American theologian Howard Thurman to serve as co-pastor at the Fellowship of All Peoples. In Berkeley, Buell Gallagher and Roy Nichols served as co-pastors at the South Berkeley Community Church, which opened its doors in 1943. The South Berkeley Community Church was self-consciously placed in a “transitioning” neighborhood—one that was once predominantly white but was experiencing an influx of African Americans—in order to keep the neighborhood integrated by first creating an integrated church.
Looking beyond their neighborhoods, interracial churches weaved themselves into a national network of activists. At the San Francisco Fellowship of All Peoples, Thurman boasted, “There are nearly 2500 associate members and friends scattered throughout the United States and several in foreign lands.” These churches served as meeting places for anti-racist political organizations, they became active in local politics, they plugged into the nationwide struggle against segregation, and they became part of the movement that helped end Jim Crow in America.
ON A SUNDAY MORNING in February, I sat in the pews of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. About 20 people attended the service. Many of them had graying heads, like the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, who was a captivating and sincere speaker. The church has retained a diverse membership and the co-pastor system. The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton led the congregation in a meditation session. Despite its diminished stature, the Fellowship is doing better than its peer institutions from the 1940s in the Bay Area. The South Berkeley Community Church is defunct, with a small group of well-wishers working to save the empty building by declaring it an architectural landmark. The Albany church has entirely vanished.
Interracial churches met the same fate as the mainline denominations that sponsored them, which lost many of their young members beginning in the 1960s and have been shrinking and aging ever since. But that is only part of the story. Beginning in the 1950s, tensions in these congregations increased between its black and white members. At the South Berkeley Church disagreements developed over worship style and control of resources that ripped the congregation apart. The old idea of bringing people together to dispel prejudice had run its course and congregants began asking more enduring and intractable questions about power and control over resources. People of different races had been brought together, but now, what was to be done when prejudice did not seem to melt away?
Howard Thurman’s answer to these tensions was interracial worship: through mystical experiences achieved during joint worship, an underlying spiritual unity would be achieved without sacrificing the distinctiveness of each individual’s cultural background. He implemented a ministerial internship program, designed to train young pastors to be more sensitive to the problems of racism and segregation. He hoped interracial worship would spread like wildfire throughout the country.
Others took an opposite stance, insisting on black power and autonomy. One such pastor, Albert Cleage, had trained at the Fellowship of All Peoples with Thurman in the 1940s. The ultimate barometer for Cleage was not how many blacks and whites worshiped in the same church but how vibrant and dynamic the black church was. Disillusioned with the trappings of Thurman’s church, Cleage went on to found the Shrine of the Black Madonna, where he preached black self-determination and became an important political figure in Detroit. Cleage reminds us that the goal of blacks and whites worshipping together is always in tension with questions of power and control, especially when it comes to worship style and church governance.
The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century also remind us about the limits of what used to be called “social engineering.” Today many African Americans argue that they have a thriving religious tradition that they see no reason to give up in order to create integrated churches, especially if the burden is placed on them to join white churches. There is also good reason to believe that church leaders value increasing diversity in their congregations much more than most churchgoers.
Much like today, the enthusiasm for interracial worship spaces in the 1940s was much more prevalent among denomination leaders and among the more liberal members of the clergy than it was among the laity. The interracial churches attracted mostly upwardly mobile African Americans and Asian Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods and white members were mostly racial liberals who came from faraway places. As projects to create organic communities that drew a broad swath of area residents, these churches were a failure from the beginning.
Where the interracial churches achieved lasting influence was in their political advocacy. Roy Nichols headed the local chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and was the first African American elected to the district school board. Howard Thurman moved on to Boston University, where he mentored the young Martin Luther King Jr. Buell Gallagher joined the Harry Truman administration, and later became president of City College of New York, where he was known as an outspoken opponent of racism. William Rumford, the first black assembly member to join the California legislature, held organizing meetings at the Berkeley Community Church.
As importantly, interracial churches helped transform their denominations’ position on racism. Nichols, for example, helped integrate the United Methodist Church’s bureaucracy. Likewise, Gallagher pushed for the Congregationalists, and later the United Church of Christ, to combat racism. Protestant leaders like them had not lost sight of church integration as their major goal but they refused to wait for integration to happen at the grassroots before tackling injustice at the local and national level.
As predominantly white denominations make plans for racial reconciliation over the coming years, it is worth remembering that African Americans might have good reasons for not going along with their agenda. If mostly white churches are asked to become more inclusive, some might wonder why African Americans are being asked to join white churches and not the other way around. It is imperative to keep these power dynamics at the forefront and to ask, forthrightly, who is being asked to bear the burden.
There’s very little in this country’s history to suggest that most churches will integrate or that the process will be easy. But other tasks are available to church leaders that do not rely on the vagaries of volunteerism. In addressing racial discrepancies in denominational institutions or in political action, clergy could lead the way. Should Southern Baptists decide to use their political influence to push for legislation designed to monitor local police or alleviate urban poverty, for example, such action could have a far-reaching impact.
The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century were, indeed, transformative but not in the way their leaders expected. The churches struggled to overcome the difficulties of bridging the racial divides of their era but 11 a.m. hour remained largely segregated across the country. It’s what they did with the other 167 hours of the week that constitutes their most important legacy. Today’s leadership would be wise to learn from their example.
Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.” Follow him on Twitter.