Thursday, May 5, 2011

Churches advertising segregation

News of last week's tornadoes have almost completely disappeared  in the wake of the death of Usama bin Laden.  However, during last week's coverage of the destruction across the South, I heard that Smithville, MS suffered severe damage.  Since we attend church in Smithville, Ohio and our son attends school there,  my curiosity got the best of me and I had to Google it.  The damage sustained by this tiny town is stunning: 

The Smithville Baptist Church was destroyed:
"They gathered Sunday in a white tent in the parking lot of the demolished church and sang praises to God. Some of them raised their hands high — toward the same heavens that spit out the killer tornado that destroyed the church and most of the town.
They called it 'Resurrection Sunday' at Smithville Baptist Church, which is now a pile of twisted debris in one of the hardest hit towns in Mississippi."
Members of the Smithville Baptist Church filled the makeshift tent and parking lot seating for services Sunday, May 1, 2011 in tornado-ravaged Smithville, Miss. Remains of the church can be seen in the background. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

 It turns out that demographically, Smithville, MS and Smithville, OH are very similar:

Smithville, OH  1357
Smithville, MS   857

Median Income:
Smithville, OH  $40,168
Smithville, MS  $33,814

Land Area:
Smithville, OH  1.23 sq. miles
Smithville, MS  1.46 sq. miles

Smithville, OH  White 95.7%
Smithville, MS  White 96%

When I checked out the town's website, I saw something heartbreaking on the page that listed the churches:

Smithville Area Churches
White ChurchesAfrican American Churches
Smithville Baptist Church
60023 Monroe St.
P. O. Box 52
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Bro. Wes White
New Macedonia Baptist Ch.60017 Four Mile Road N.
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - TBA
Smithville Church of Christ
60657 Smithville Road
P. O. Box 56
Smithville, MS 38870
Minister - Bro. Mickey Beam
Spruill Chapel Church60062 Forrester Lane
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - TBA
Pearce Chapel Freewill Baptist
60174 Pearce Chapel Road
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Bro. Heath Webb
St. Paul CME ChurchParham Store Road
P. O. Box 502
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Rev. Robert Fields
Smithville United Methodist Ch. 60001 Gum St.
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Bro. Ron Stephens
New Bethel United MethodistHighway 23 S.
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - TBA
Community Baptist Church60026 Boozer Lane
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Bro. Ryan Musgrove
Smithville Freewill Baptist Ch.60016 Brasfield Lane
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - TBA
Victory Baptist Church63381 Highway 25 N.
Smithville, MS 38870
Pastor - Bro. Johnny Hughes

"White Churches" and "African American Churches"? What does that mean, exactly?  Are white people not permitted to go to the African American churches?  Are black people banned from the white churches?  And where are the Hispanic, American Indian, Pacific Islander,  Asian, and multi-racial individuals supposed to go?  I admit, I'm a Yankee (NOT the baseball kind!!) by birth and attitude and may not understand some things about the South.  But how is this acceptable in the year 2011? 

I understand and accept that there are cultural and stylistic differences that exist among various churches and that it's OK for people to attend a church where they are comfortable.  But advertising that you are a "white" church or an "African American" church creates instant,  artificial, and unnecessary divisions between brothers and sisters in Christ.  Any church that allows its name to be on such a list should be ashamed.  

And yet, I say this as someone who lives in an almost 100% white Township and attends a church that is almost 100% white.  We don't have signs that keep people segregated and I honestly don't know why, in this day and age, the area remains so...white.  We choose to live here because of the beauty of the countryside and the space and fresh air.  The principal of Smithville High School noted in a recent school newsletter that  "We choose to live in a conservative community."  And that's a part of it too.   On the one hand, I wish it were more diverse, but on the other hand,  I feel like wishing for diversity is falling into the trap of dividing us by color.  

A couple years ago our family was blessed to visit the Creation Museum and I was challenged to think about the issue of race in a way I hadn't previously considered.   The Bible tells us that we are all "One Blood" and have more in common than divides us.  In his book Darwin's Plantation, Ken Ham and Charles Ware say this:

1. We came from one man.
“The first man [was] Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45).
We know from God’s Word that all people descended from one man, Adam. The Y-chromosome contains DNA that is passed directly from father to son. We would predict that Y-chromosome DNA would be similar in all men alive today. Scientific research on Y-chromosome DNA seems to bear this out.

2. We came from one woman.
“Eve . . . was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20).
We know from God’s Word that all people descended from one woman, Eve. Mitochondrial DNA is passed directly from mother to child. We would predict that mitochondrial DNA would be similar in all people alive today. Scientific research on mitochondrial DNA seems to bear this out."

3. We are fully human from conception.
All the genetic information to make an individual is present at conception, so right from the start a fertilized human egg cell is totally human. There is no biological basis for drawing any other lie for when we “become” human. Every human is fully human, from conception to the end of life.

4. There is only one race of humans.
All of us descended from the first two people — with a common ancestry, we are not different biological races. However, the Bible makes it clear there are two spiritual races (those who trust Christ and those who don’t).

May our churches someday live like we believe this!

While we pray for the recovery of Smithville, MS, let's also pray that the Church of Jesus Christ in Smithville, Mississippi, Smithville Ohio, and around the world will take to heart Paul's words to the Galatians:
"For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26-28).


ChrisM said...

Thanks for noticing this issue! It's refreshing to see someone on the lookout for racism, and willing to address it head on.

I just want to say this about the issue. The differences between black and white people and churches are far larger than style or taste. There are large differences in thinking, theology, life experiences, and current life situations. I think that asking for integration is far from sufficient. Reconciliation is what is really needed. Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice (not the singer, the pastor) wrote a book more than two decades ago called "More Than Equals" about the divisions between white and black people in America, and how those can be addressed. They are firm believers that reconciliation must start within the church as an example to world of Christ's healing power.

What I take from that book, however, is that the divide is deep: 400 years of slavery still has its profound effect economically and spiritually on the people living with that legacy, even if the effect looks far different today than it did then. Reconciling black and white people is something that nothing short of Christ's supernatural power to break down walls and build bridges can achieve.

One organization that I've been involved with, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, has modeled one approach. At Ohio State, they have a large "multiethnic" chapter, that any are welcome to attend, but it is largely white. Two other chapters exist at that school: a Black Student Fellowship, and an Asian student fellowship. This arrangement addresses some major concerns. A person from a minority may not feel comfortable with a white person's spirituality, and conversely, a white person may not feel comfortable with a strongly black or Asian spirituality. This setup allows people to easily find a setting they are comfortable in, can relate with people in, and can honestly face social issues that are unique to their own ethnicity.

Intervarsity is one of the most committed Christian organizations in America to ethnic reconciliation, yet they recognize the value of having separate places for ethnic specific worship. I think that it is worth noting that this seeming "segregation" is actually part of the strategy for reconciliation.

So while I agree that we need to avoid dividing along racial lines, I think that separate is not necessarily divided. There are places for multiethnic churches, but diversity inside the same body is incredibly difficult to maintain. This is why the Chapel has ethnic specific ministries and even in some cases almost separate churches (the Chinese church, for instance). It's not that we are avoiding reconciliation. We are seeking it in a sensitive way that leaves nobody needing something they don't have.

Paula said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. It is a difficult issue. One thing that encourages me is the acceptance of interracial adoptions. When it happens, a family is integrated and sometimes a neighborhood and a church is also integrated more fully. The acceptance of interracial adoption is breaking down barriers that years of laws and artificial attempts at reconciliation have been unable to do. some great articles on the church and orphan care.

It's hard to determine whether the issue is mainly stylistic or it's something else. Our church has a lot of former Mennonites and life-long fundamentalist Baptists. They are very uncomfortable with clapping in church, let alone drums and electric guitars! In other churches, you'd have people dozing off if clapping were not allowed and they were singing hymns from the hymn book with an organ. Yet spiritually and theologically they may be in complete agreement.

Our church has a ministry for Hispanic speaking people in the area. A dear man who is a retired missionary goes door-to-door to invite them to the service held in our church basement every Sunday. They hear the Word and worship in their native language, which they seem to appreciate. Still, I hope ultimately they feel comfortable enough to integrate with the rest of the church and we can fellowship and worship together.

We are much closer than we were 50 - or even 20 - years ago, but we're not there yet!

ChrisM said...

It's great hear of ministries like that! I'm really glad to see that interacial adoption is less stigmatized now than it once was. That really helps meet a huge need.

I think that God is far bigger than any one style of worship or approach to spirituality (within the limits of what can be said to be true with certainty, of course). We need the energy of Spanish worship, the focus on passion of much black worship, and the intellectualism of white worship. God would not be pleased to see any of these efforts missing on earth.

The problem becomes exactly what you noted: it's really difficult to tell if differences exist based on something as simple as preference, or something deeper. I think this is why we need to have open, honest conversations about why we are separate. These face to face conversations can be painful and challenging, as many different hurts that extend far beyond past laws come to the forefront. Prejudice finds its way into everyone's thinking through subtle means; it is no longer overt, but it still has its effects.

I pray for real change, based on mutual understanding built through the hard work of reconciliation.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one horrified by this, although I'm not surprised. My family is from Smithville and I lived there for a few years then happily left for good. When I called a family member to tell them about what I saw on the website they denied it because it had been changed by then. I'm glad to have your screen capture. This type of thing is so ingrained into the culture that they don't realise how offensive it is. Maybe it is a lesson learned for them. Sadly, I suspect it is not.

Paula said...

Thanks for the update. I'm so glad to see they changed it - it's a start, right? At least someone there is talking about the issue and perhaps acknowledging there's a problem. I pray that perhaps the devastating tornadoes will be a catalyst for healing and bridging some of those divisions that exists.

Lynn Humphrey said...

Wow, this sent a chill up my spine.My folks are from Smithville, my great, great grandad built Spruil chapel in 1865......and it sounds like they are still stuck in the is a very rural area, and I saw a confederate flag flying nearby Greenwood Springs I believe.

My great grandad Phelix Sartor was a mulatto,and so was his brother Earl Dean (both their fathers where white)....but race mixing still wasnt acceptable.