There are many Christians who believe that multicultural congregations and ministries are the antidote to the problem of race. In this view, if only more Christians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds worshipped together and befriended one another then the foundations of racism would crumble. But what if this strategy is not only ineffective but actually exacerbating the problem?
Most multicultural churches—in spite of the best intentions—still center white experiences and require people of color to make bigger sacrifices in adjusting themselves to white norms. In The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, sociologist Korie L. Edwards draws on both qualitative and quantitative methods to support her claim that the majority of “interracial churches work to the extent that they are, first, comfortable places for whites to attend.”
Additionally, multicultural ministerial frameworks strongly emphasis the power of personal relationships to undo racism while either ignoring or de-emphasizing structural realities. In the 2015 study “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” sociologists from Baylor University, University of Chicago, and University of Southern California conclude that “Whites in multiracial congregations are just as likely as Whites in predominantly White congregations to question the importance of social structure in accounting for Black/White inequality and emphasize the importance of Blacks’ own motivation.” Moreover, “Blacks who attend multiracial congregations are less likely to afﬁrm structural explanations for racial inequality than Blacks in non-multiracial congregations.”
What do these results reveal? Astonishingly, multicultural churches have been better at making people of color approximate white attitudes and perspectives on race than challenging Whiteness itself. Part of the issue lies with how race and racial categorization itself is understood. Like popular reconciliation paradigms, multicultural paradigms mistake racial separation and lack of diversity as the heart of racism when these, in fact, are symptoms.
Jennifer Harvey, in her book Dear White Christians, writes:
But the racial problem, or the problem of racism—the actual racial situation in our faith communities—is not separateness itself. And togetherness is certainly no solution. Separateness is merely a symptom. The real problem is what our differences represent, how they came to be historically, and what they mean materially and structurally still.
Harvey argues that the identities of “Black” and “White” are not parallel or historically symmetrical. Moreover, the problem of Whiteness is central to racial injustice and this is something that multicultural visions—which tend to put “White,” “Black,” “Brown,” and “Yellow” on a categorically level plain—struggle to address. Whiteness is not simply a problem of one racial group mistreating another one but is about how White identity itself came into existence through constructions of systems which subjugated and categorized black people, indigenous people, and the wider world.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning” are employed as a justification for integrated churches being the silver-bullet to racism. Yet, King’s vision of Beloved Community, as it matured, was never reducible to this and was both sensitive to structural problems and in solidarity with liberation movements globally, as evidenced by his work on the Poor People’s Campaign and his Riverside Church speech.
Sometimes multicultural frameworks go so far as to explicitly or implicitly condemn all-Black or all-Latino churches for practicing the same segregation that White churches do. Within the assumptions of multiculturalism, this charge makes sense. If the racial hierarchy that has developed over the past 500 years is condensed to the issue of, “Why are all the black people sitting together?” then having everyone sit side by side in the pews becomes the solution and not sitting side by side is the problem. Yet, this downplays the different circumstances under which “ethnic” churches have developed and resisted oppression. Similarly, this account overlooks the ways in which churches such as Latino ones are often already multicultural and multiracial.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for “segregation” but for a critical evaluation of what gets lumped together under that banner. And to be sure, cross-racial/cultural relationships are important and beneficial in many ways but insufficient by themselves to undo racism. Relationships and group-dynamics need to be held within a larger context. More than a superficial multiculturalism which boils down to demographics, we are desperately in need of Christian practice that is liberative and decolonial, that attends to structural realities and exercises long-term memory.
Demographics are important but don’t tell the full story. For example, a few years ago, I attended a multicultural church for a couple of months. This was truly one of the most diverse Christian congregations I have ever seen in my life. There were people from all over the world, across socio-economic lines, men, women, and youth. The church was majority people of color with a strong white contingent still present. Musically, diverse worship styles were solidly represented even if there was still too much Hillsong. When it came to leadership, the church’s staff had Whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and the head pastor was Latino. A slice of heaven on earth, I thought.
Yet, in spite of the church’s incredible diversity, I had an uneasiness I couldn’t quite put my finger on initially. Eventually, it dawned on me. In his sermons, the pastor almost exclusively quoted white, male [conservative] theologians and biblical scholars. Week after week, when the pastor would make a substantive theological or biblical point, he would incorporate the commentary or framework of white, dominant voices. This experience spiritually shook me. I saw a great multitude of colorful people worshiping a culturally adept Jesus but Jesus was still White.