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In multiracial churches, pastors of color hitting ‘the same white wall’

“You would have the older whites asking, ‘Why did we get the black priest?’ Like if the patient comes in and says, ‘Why did I get the black doctor?’ … but then some of the blacks were saying, ‘Why did we get the black priest?’ in a negative way … because they always have had white priests. Negative, like ‘What did we do to get a black priest? We’ve always had a white priest.’” – a black pastor of a multiracial congregation.

An ideal of multiracial churches is to be a sign of a day when faith transcends color and ethnicity.

But are they instead increasing inequality?

New findings from the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project suggest white pastors of multiracial churches receive disproportionate resources, have greater authority and are valued more by their congregations than clergy of color.

In their own words, many black and Asian pastors in multiracial churches say they are denied a seat at the table in predominantly white denominations, while they are also alienated from their spiritual homes in Asian American and African American churches.

“The stories of the African American pastors and Asian American pastors are ones of people standing on the doorsteps of assimilation only to be ultimately denied entrance through the door of whiteness and access to the privileges enjoyed by the white majority,” reported researchers Korie Edwards of Ohio State University and Rebecca Kim of Pepperdine University.

A racial divide

There is a cavernous gap in attitudes on race in America.

Within the church, for example, more than four in five black Protestants said their race was very important to their sense of who they are; 55 percent said they are aware of what race they are about every day.

In contrast, less than a quarter of overwhelmingly white mainline Protestants attached the same importance to their racial identity; just 17 percent think about their race daily.

This lack of sensitivity to race – and the racial structures that impact the lives of people of color – present special challenges for racially diverse congregations.

A good deal of ethnographic research has indicated people of color pay “the lion’s share” of the personal costs associated with attending multiracial churches, Edwards and Kim noted.

These costs include feeling isolated, not having their religious and cultural preferences met and having only symbolic influence in their congregations.

The recent research involved 121 in-depth, face-to-face interviews with head clergy of multiracial churches as part of the religious diversity project, a nationwide study led by Edwards of leadership in multiracial religious organizations in the United States.

Three articles analyzing study data were recently published in the journal Sociology of Religion.

What the research revealed is that even in multiracial churches, “Neither African American nor Asian American pastors—regardless of their particular ethnicity, race, culture, or histories—are gaining entrée into the white majority. They are both hitting the same white wall,” Edwards and Kim wrote.

Consider these findings:

• Separate and unequal: An Asian American pastor starting a church in a new neighborhood deliberately omitted photos of himself in church advertisements. A black pastor did the same “because there’s a stigma that comes along with an African American.” Overall, Edwards and Kim found pastors of color were “dismissed and dissed:” dismissed because they were seen as outsiders by African American and Asian American church leaders; dissed because they are not given the same power and privileges as their white counterparts in multiracial congregations.
• Hoarding resources: White pastors leading multiracial communities reported being given access to support from denominational sources, civic leaders, philanthropists and others within their predominantly white networks. But for most leaders of color, access to multiracial church resources “felt nonexistent,” according to researcher Christopher Munn.
• No justice: Nearly all pastors laid claim to being qualified to head multiracial churches based on their desire for diversity and being motivated by past acts of racial injustice. But many pastors in discussing racism referred back some 50 years or more to the civil rights movement, with the understanding that the institutions they served were more concerned today with diversity than addressing racial inequality. “Given that recognition of racial injustice is an important step to ending it, the formula stories socially acceptable in multiracial churches may be reifying racism rather than rectifying it,” researcher Oneya Fennell Okuwobi reported.

The findings were not surprising to M. Garlinda Burton, a black woman who is resource development manager at and a former interim head of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

“Racial justice has gone to the bottom of the list of priorities” for many predominantly white denominations, Burton said.

That is reflected within the church, she said, in ways from discounting the voices of people of color on either side of major issues confronting the denomination to many people considering the appointment of a pastor of color as a punishment to a congregation.

In many ways, even if left unsaid, “There is a sense among white people that white is better.”

A critical juncture

What can be done?

Ideas offered by researchers include:

• Beginning the work in seminaries, establishing alliances with historically black colleges and universities to recruit future leaders, and then offering emotional and practical support to seminarians of color,
• Engaging with black religious leaders to lift up and validate the black church within predominantly white denominations.
• Working with historically Asian and African American churches “to build the future multiracial churches together “with equal power and mutual commitment.”
• Confronting and addressing racial inequality within religious institutions and in the larger society.

Edwards said she believes the ideal of ethnically and racially diverse congregations, ones that are models of justice, equality and inclusion, “could be a really positive step forward.”

But if they reinforce racial inequality, alienating rather than affirming people of color, “that can be harmful.”

Image by Indiana Public Media, via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Image by Portland Seminary, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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