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The Most Segregated Hour in America

Monday, January 19, 2009

On December 18, 1963, just four months after delivering his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, Dr. Martin Luther King was invited to speak at Western Michigan University’s “Conscience of America” lecture symposium on racial prejudice and race relations. Following a speech on “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age” Dr. King responded to a question by President Miller.

Dr. Miller: Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means? This would be a means of seeing just who are true Christians.

Dr. King: As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. 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. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, 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 it’s own body.”

         Dr. Miller’s question appears to be based on the deeply rooted racist attitudes that permeated America in the 1960’s.  When he asked, “Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means? He was expressing the resistance of American society at large to allow integration and the duty of the church to pursue it.  The integration of local congregations in the words of Dr. Miller, “would be a means of seeing just who are true Christians.” This comment alone is a powerful indictment on the church which was expected to accept people of all backgrounds yet was no different than the secular institutions that upheld segregation.

         Due to the Church’s failure to be “the moral guardian of the community” Dr. King took his message beyond the Church. That powerful message impacted the lives of millions of American red, brown, yellow, black and white through civil rights legislation that would open the doors of secular institutions to integration. Regrettably the last bastion of segregation is still the “moribound” church.         

         According to the most recent studies, only 7% of all congregations in America are multi-racial.  Sociologist, Michael Emerson, classifies 5% of protestant congregations, 15% of Catholic congregations and 28% of non-Christian congregations as multiracial.  By definition a multiracial church has an ethnic mix where no more than 80% of the congregation is of one dominant group.

It took government legislation to mandate integration under the penalty of temporal legal action. The Church, corporately and individually is under the mandates of Christ and as such is subject to the loss of eternal rewards.  It’s been 45 years since Dr. King made his often used comment that “at 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”  How much longer must we wait before it can be said that at 11:00 on Sunday morning we stand at the most integrated hour in this nation? The question is, “What are you doing to help make that happen?”

That’s my opinion I welcome yours.


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One comment

  1. I am an African-American writing this blog on Jan 20, while at the same time viewing the inaugural parade of Barak Obama. I watched his swearing in ceremony and realized just how blessed my generation is to witness such an historic event in our nation’s history. Obama’s election is an undeniable statement to Americans, and especially to people of color that America has made significant strides in racial equality. We are not there yet. But I am more optimistic. What saddens me … from a church perspective, the church lags far behind in embracing racial diversity and inclusiveness. We, the church seem to be taking our cue from social changes within America rather than leading. Thus we finds ourselves playing “catch up”. Yep! it is true that the 11:00 Sunday morning hour is still the most segragated in America. And let’s face it. It is much easier to stay as homogenous or ethnocentric church community rather than reaching across the barriers of color, language, gender, class that we allow to to keep us separated. Diversity means work. Hard work of sacrifice, intentionality, inclusion, change in power structure, acceptance over tolerance, love over differences. If we claim the bible is our mandate, Jesus is our example, the Holy Spirit is our guide, how can the church continually stay within the comfort of our separateness?
    On the other hand I am hopeful. I see glimpses of God’s spirit moving the church towards inclusion and acceptance. The younger generation (Gen-X , Gen-Y) have been exposed to more diverse social landscape and are bringing those expecations into the church. If the church refuses to acknowledge the needed change to embrace and make intentional efforts to reach across racial barriers, most likely it will die or become relatively ineffective in the community … especially if it is located in an ethnically changing community. The days of waiting are fast approaching. I pray the church wakes up and pursues diversity for sake of Christ, and become more influential in our pursuit of racial inclusion at all levels of our society. Jesus stated we are the light set on a hill. It is time to let our light shine.

    I have been blessed to see an African-American to become the 44th president of United States.



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