Last week, I had the privilege of joining several Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders at the Seventh Day Adventist Center here in Columbia. This event is an annual gathering of religious leaders from various faith traditions. Some of these events offer faith leaders the opportunity to meet their counterparts and to share thoughts and reflections on many of the challenges we all share, and how best to work together in confronting these challenges.
The main speaker for the event - a pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie - expounded on a thought that I have not only heard several times before but also one which is prevalent up and down this great country. The thought he expounded upon is that “11:00 A.M on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” That is the time when Whites worship in White churches and Blacks worship in Black churches. But he didn’t stop there; he boldly lumped together the weekend days and stated, “Weekends are the most segregated days of the week in America.”
We generally gather at different places of employment for business affairs from Monday through Friday. And it is the case because we are literally forced to do so since the culture of our jobs or business doesn’t tolerate the contrary. But for the most part, we really can’t wait to go home to our neighborhoods, to our friends, and spouses who look like us. We are keenly aware that no one requires of us to have any number of different people in our house, and the comfort in knowing that often perpetuates our penchant for desiring to live with a "silo mentality".
This speaker then traced the history of the AME Church, which began in Philadelphia on a Sunday morning as Black worshipers, who had gathered at the altar rails in the front of St. George’s United Methodist Church to pray, were asked by a White usher to move and give way to White worshipers who wanted to pray at that same spot. Out of deep frustration, the Blacks left that church and, over time, began their own churches; Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Absalom Jones became an Episcopal priest with his own congregation, which is now the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Although there was a pushback against the formation of African American congregations, that incident in itself was the catalyst that helped create the segregated worship experience.
Unfortunately, however, that tradition permeated and tends to continue to this day, where we have majority of our churches populated by worshipers who look like each other.
When I was serving in one of my former parishes, I couldn’t get my wife to come to that church with me. We argued and quarreled over why she wouldn’t join in for worship. At the time, she had never shared with me the underlying basis of why she wouldn’t worship there until, one day in the heat of our dispute on this topic, she exclaimed that "As an African American, I don’t feel comfortable in that church."
My initial reaction was one of dismay. "What do you mean you don’t feel comfortable?" I asked.
Her response to me was, "Because it is all White."
"So what?" I asked.
"You do not understand," was her reply.
Of course, I did not. I was raised in a society, and with a kind of consciousness, that took for granted the very idea that people of all races could worship together. I barely saw a White in my local church, and if there was one, it was a good feeling. I, myself, have never had any problem with worshiping anywhere.
But she doesn’t share the same consciousness as I do. Being an African American, she was raised in a Black church tradition and with a consciousness which said that, on Sunday mornings, Blacks worship in their own churches and Whites worship in their own churches. Although that was antithetical to all that I had ever known and experienced in my life, it surely gave me something to think about, and forced me to ask myself questions that go to the core of what it is to be human, and to be different, and what might it take for all of our communities to outgrow our ‘silo mindedness?'
Christ Episcopal Church is an outlier, and we must never take for granted that we are a crucible that hold a rich variety of God’s creative wonder. Christ Church is one of the churches where you can assure yourself that 11:00 a.m. isn’t the most segregated hour, and it is this way because we have insisted and worked very hard in creating a long tradition of offering a sacred space where we all can worship with the same people we work with, and see, from Monday to Friday. We offer a different narrative, and we should never limit ourselves in stepping beyond human categories. To a very great extent, it is a unique gift and witness that Christ Church offers to the broader church.
There’s an Akan (I am a member of the Akan tribe in Ghana) proverb which states that ‘All of our fingers aren’t the same.’ Each is different, each is unique, each plays a particular role, each has its own identity - fingers tell the broader human story - we are never the same and will never be the same. As uniquely separate as each finger is, they together can fold into a fist, and are stronger together than individually. In that same vein, each person is individually unique in their own way.
But the crucial point is, much as it is never a sin for me to be Black, nor a sin to be White, so is it never a sin to be anything human - do not confuse differences with defects. We reduce human nature and our unique identity to a verb when we claim that human identity, our core, is an act that is manufactured or man-made. It is not, and never has been.
We have come a long way, but still have ways to go in creating trust in each other, and honoring the debt we owe one another - it’s the debt of dignity rooted in love, the kind of love that overthrows anything that isn't justice.
We may not have the power to choose those we work with, but we have the power to choose where we want to be at 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning.
Use the power that you have to counter the 11:00 A.M. narrative.