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Race and the church: Getting beyond the handshake

In a city split by racial wounds, Detroit area church leaders endeavor to promote reconciliation, cooperation through regular fellowship, joint ministry.

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Like many urban areas, Detroit often divides along racial and socioeconomic lines — pitting the poor, black inner city against affluent, white suburbs.
Most recently, a text-messaging sex scandal involving former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is black, reopened racial wounds. In his State of the City address in March, Kilpatrick referred to a racial slur and complained of a “hate-driven bigoted assault” on his family.
All too frequently, the great divide between black and white extends to Churches of Christ.
“Unfortunately, divisions in our culture have been allowed to influence our brotherhood,” said Roger B. Woods, minister and elder at the Walled Lake church, northwest of Detroit. “For too long, there have been separate fellowships when there should be but one church.”
Larry Stephens, minister at the Livonia church, west of Detroit, said: “Racial tensions in Michigan have been high for several decades. I know of several (white members) in my congregation who won’t go to Detroit out of fear, and blacks often fear coming to the suburbs out of fear of harassment. … While most would deny that they are prejudiced, I believe it is a serious problem for many.”
Two years ago, a group of black, white and Hispanic church leaders led by James Snow set out to facilitate reconciliation and cooperation among area congregations. An executive committee made up of elders, ministers and members from more than 10 congregations formed a not-for-profit organization called Unity in Christ.
“My passion is for the church in our generation and communities to be a true reflection of the Lord’s church that we read about,” said Snow, minister and elder at Detroit’s Redford church, a 330-member congregation that is 90 percent black.
Over two recent weekends, Unity in Christ organized a series of events:

• Love in Action — Churches worked together to provide school supplies and backpacks to thousands of needy children.
Host congregations were the Redford church, the Oakland church in Southfield, the Wyoming Avenue church in Detroit, the Sunset church in Taylor and the Vinewood church in Detroit.
Partnering congregations included the Livonia church, the Northwest church in Detroit, the Cameron Avenue church in Detroit, the Walled Lake church, the Metro church in Sterling Heights, the Lincoln Park church, the Trenton church and the Plymouth church.
• Pulpit Exchange — Ten churches welcomed ministers from other congregations. Stephens preached at the predominantly black Oakland church, while Oakland minister Jimmy Hurd, who is black, spoke at mostly white Livonia.

• Unity Concert — The Sunset church hosted a Saturday night event featuring cookies and congregational singing led by Ken Spencer, a member of the Wyoming Avenue church.
The all-black Jesse H. Bishop Crusaders chorus, wearing purple robes and directed by Jahton Bishop, performed first.
The all-white, casually attired praise team from the Rochester church followed.
Both groups cheered for each other.
• Megaworship — Organizers booked the Southfield Municipal Complex Pavilion for a Sunday afternoon service. A catered meal preceded the service, which drew 650 people from 29 congregations.
Two ministers — one a black preacher in a three-piece suit and the other a white, native Australian with an open-collar shirt — challenged the crowd to “get beyond the handshake” and “surface fellowship.”
“See, the problem in the kingdom of God is that we are prejudiced,” said David Lane, minister of the Marsalis Avenue church in Dallas and on-site coordinator of the National Lectureship, the largest annual gathering of black churches.
Lane characterized that prejudice not just as racial. Beyond external appearances, he said, “we judge people based on extrabiblical standards.”
 “You know, the church of Jesus Christ gets all hung up and divided over how many cups we are going to have in worship, whether we are going to have one song leader or multiple song leaders, whether we are going to clap our hands or wave our hands and whether we are going to say ‘Amen’ or nod our head,” Lane said.
“It’s more a matter of taste than theology. It’s more a matter of preference than principle. … So, let’s just say it’s our preference instead of trying to make folk believe that it’s a sin.”
The kind of love and acceptance commanded by Christ requires crossing racial, cultural, social and economic lines, he said.
“We don’t know each other because we don’t associate with each other, and we don’t associate with each other because we fear each other,” Lane said. “It’s nothing but a vicious cycle that comes from the pit of hell.”
Rich Little is minister of the Naperville, Ill., church — a 700-member congregation that is 65 percent white, 25 percent black and 10 percent Asian and Hispanic. Little joked that he could have just “come up and led the invitation song” after Lane spoke. But he delivered a fiery message of his own.
“I can hear God more loudly, more clearly in a culture of diversity than I can in a culture of sameness,” he said. “That hasn’t been our tendency. We’ve often just spliced and diced the kingdom of God in more ways than any other religious group in the history of this nation.”
Many in the church envision God as “an old white man,” Little said.
“How would your view of God change if instead God were a middle-aged Indian man or an older Asian man or a young African-American man?” he asked. “You see, stereotypes limit your view of God. And stereotypes limit your view of each other.”
Little said that Christians must realize they are the 67th book of the Bible — “living, breathing oracles of God.”
“If we’re going to be the kind of people that God dreamed we would be, we have to realize that we have a God of diversity, not a God of sameness; we have a gospel of inclusion, not exclusion; we have a God who prayed for unity, not uniformity,” he said.
Letrice Mills, a member of the predominantly black Franklin Road church in Pontiac, attended the areawide service with her husband Tertius Sr., son Tertius Jr., 7, and daughter Jasmine, almost 2.
“I think we need to be more unified as a Church of Christ and not just have a black Church of Christ or a white Church of Christ or a Hispanic Church of Christ,” Mills said of why she came.
“My son, he was so fascinated to see other people outside the congregation where he goes,” she added. “He kept going, ‘Mommy, who is that? Mommy, who is that?’”
In just two years, the unity effort already has produced positive fruits, Snow said.
For example, he, co-chairman Woods and their families “have come to be friends and to really appreciate one another,” Snow said.
“Our goal is not to repopulate or redistribute members of the church from one location to another,” Snow said. “It is to break down barriers and to build more bridges of fellowship and association so that the world will see one unified church in the community.
“I believe that continual fellowship and joint participation in shared ministries will help us ‘get beyond the handshake.’”

  • Feedback
    Too often, in the stories reported in the CC the churches of Christ are mentioned as “the church”! Example, Churches working together to provide… were the Redford church, the Oakland church, etc. It is almost as though these congregations are separate churches and not churches of Christ at all! Why not just mention them as congregations? When, in fact that is what they are.
    Raymond Coats
    Rio Vista church of Christ
    Rio Vista, California
    September, 19 2010

    I love that this subject is being addressed. We all come from different backgrounds. Some of us still define ourselves as first black or white. Second as a christian. However, nothing should define us more than our relationship with God. God has provided us with so many blessing. Among them is the variety of beauty in his creation. That’s what the different looks or races are. Though I believe there is only one race, the human race. No one is better because of look or culture. We are all equal in Christ.
    November, 9 2008

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