The great modern-day theologian–Steven Colbert of the popular Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report”–recently began accepting applications for the position of his very own “black friend.”
Recognizing the importance of political correctness, Colbert thought it crucial to have a black friend he could point to just in case he was ever accused of being a racist. He was so committed he needed ask someone else before choosing from the pool of applicants which ones were black, because he was “color-blind.”
Don’t we all claim this? Colbert’s approach to racially and ethnically diversifying his cadre of friends is unfortunately similar to the approach many churches take in trying to diversify their congregations. For some churches, the hope of diversification is more for the sake of political correctness than to create a new community.
About 30 white pastors gathered years ago to discuss how best to diversify their congregations to set an example to their community. Tired of preaching to a sea of whiteness, they wanted to have their congregations conform closer to the ideal church model illustrated in the book of Revelation where those surrounding the throne of God represented “every tribe, language, people and nation.”
While I appreciated their sincerity, I knew we were in trouble when I noticed that, including myself, there were only two ministers of color in the room. For about an hour the white pastors mainly congratulated each other for their foresight dealing with issues of diversity within their congregations and towns.
They went on to devise plans of action to achieve noble goals, such as inviting a pastor of color to preach from their pulpit, forming a committee with a church of color to bring the congregations together and providing charity to a church of color in financial need.
No one bothered to ask the only two ministers of color in the room for their advice or concerns about some of the ideas being floated. Finally, after an hour of listening to strategies that I knew would never work–and worse would give these pastors the excuse of saying that they tried but the communities of color were simply not interested–I spoke up.
“Why,” I asked, “do you assume I would even want to worship at your church? After centuries of exclusion, why should I come a-running now that you think it makes your church look good by having a black or brown face in the pew to prove that your congregations aren’t racist?”
Not surprisingly, my questions were not well received. Nevertheless, I went on to say that it was difficult for me to pray while sitting next to the banker who will charge me an extra point of interest because my last name ends in a vowel. It’s hard to shout praises to the Lord while being stared at by the police officer who gave me a ticket for driving while under the influence of being Hispanic. It’s challenging to proclaim the mercies of my God knowing that sitting across the aisle is a parishioner who refuses to show mercy toward the undocumented.
Maybe the Sunday morning worship hour must continue to remain the most segregated hour of the week. Attempting to diversify white churches will be a waste of time unless white churches first deal with the social structures of racism and ethnic discrimination that is prevalent outside the church’s walls. We will not be able to worship together until white churches begin to actively bring about a distribution of power within society that can dismantle white supremacy. Until that happens, maybe the best that can be done is to advertise for a “black friend
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.