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Race and the church: How far have we come?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Young scholars, meet the old warhorses.

At the Christian Scholars Conference, young scholars presented papers during a session dubbed “How Far Have We Come? A Current Assessment of Race Relations in Churches of Christ.”

Then the old warhorses — who actually experienced the turbulent times studied — explained what really happened.

I’m exaggerating, but the riveting discussion had that kind of feel to this journalist, born in 1967, the same year the Nashville Christian Institute closed (see related story on Page 1).

One could forgive Andrew Hairston, the preacher for the predominantly black Simpson Street Church of Christ in Atlanta since 1961, for his bluntness in responding to — as he put it — “the beneficiaries of stuff we created and worked on.”

“Now we sit in judgment of us,” Hairston quipped, drawing laughter from the standing-room-only crowd that filled a Lipscomb University lecture hall.

This was not, after all, the first time Hairston had tackled the race issue in the Lord’s body.

The banner headline on the front page of the July 5, 1968, Christian Chronicle declared: “Atlanta Conference Studies Race: Negroes, Whites Discuss Problems.”

That story noted that the first speaker — Hairston — addressed “Spiritual Equality in Christ.” The Chronicle reported that the minister, then in his 30s, said Christians need to believe in one church, regard racial segregation as a sin and realize that man is a whole being.

Royce Money, former longtime president of Abilene Christian University in Texas, moderated the recent panel discussion. In 1999, Money went to historically black Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, to apologize for ACU’s “sins of racism and discrimination of the past.”

Among the young scholars was Tanya Smith Brice, a social work professor at Baylor University and a member of the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, Texas. Brice suggested that social and cultural traditions heavily influenced both black and white congregations.

“Not only were the white congregations silent about the Civil Rights Movement, so were the African-American congregations for the most part,” said Brice, who is black. “African-American members of the Church of Christ were largely reluctant to participate in the Civil Rights Movement because it was led by a Baptist minister.”

Fred Gray, a longtime elder for the Tuskegee Church of Christ in Alabama, served as Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr.’s first civil rights attorney.

“Leaders of this conference can’t tell me that … the Church of Christ didn’t play a role in the Civil Rights Movement,” Gray said. “Fred Gray is a member of the Church of Christ.”

Yet, in a 1985 interview with the Chronicle,  Gray himself said, “For the most part, members of the Church of Christ are very conservative, so neither in the white church nor in the black church has there been any real active participation in bringing an end to segregation. That has not discouraged me.”

Starting in the 1940s, the Nashville Christian Institute educated hundreds of future black church leaders.

The school allowed paternalistic white supporters and passive black beneficiaries to pretend Churches of Christ enjoyed racial unity, said young scholar Wes Crawford, who is white and preaches for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas.

To some extent, it may be true that blacks did not do much to fight the unjust social order, Hairston acknowledged.“But it’s largely true that we couldn’t do anything,” he said.

The Atlanta minister scoffed at young blacks whom he said suggest they would not have ridden at the back of any bus. “Yeah,” Hairston said, “and you would have been out there on a tree somewhere or in a river.”

Major Boglin, who is black and serves as family life minister for the majority-white North Atlanta Church of Christ in Georgia, highlighted that congregation’s efforts to make its membership and leadership more diverse.

But Hairston said white congregations typically only want blacks who are willing to assimilate to the white culture. Gray said that for some, integration means draining potential black church leaders into white churches.

“Where do you see the reverse of what North Atlanta is trying?” Hairston asked. “Where do you see a black church being integrated by white folks?”

Despite the challenges, Gray sees Churches of Christ as making progress.

“What we are doing here is a step in the right direction,” the old warhorse told the young scholars. “At least we are beginning to talk about it. Racism is still alive. It’s wrong. And we need to come up with a plan to do away with it.”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. He can be reached at [email protected].

Filed under: Inside Story

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