Racial Identity and the Church
Each week we sat in a circle, huddled in a dorm room preparing our hearts for worship. For an entire semester our small group of diverse women gathered together to pray. One day a new face joined our little group. When it was time for her to pray, she started off shyly, carefully choosing each word. A voice within the group gently interrupted, “You know you can pray in any language you want.” We all felt her body shift as she exclaimed, “Really?” We opened our eyes and nodded in unison. As she switched from English to Spanish, the words burst from her small body, rushing together like a song. She sounded like an entirely different person. We only knew some phrases and key words, but that young woman lifted all of our hearts that night. By affirming her, we saw her true identity, and our view of God was expanded as we all imagined God whispering in Spanish back to her, back to us all.
Whether homogenous or multiracial, what do we lose by not actively engaging our racial and ethnic identites?
Though she was praying in a language I didn’t know, there was something familiar about her worship. Attending a black church as a child, I remember being enthralled by hand-waving praise, melodious sermons, and gospel music that rose and fell with the emotions of the church. For two hours, we really were one body. Once our new group member was given the freedom to be herself, those memories and my own cultural background suddenly felt affirmed. An intense wave of belonging and connection took over. After that moment, we were never more committed to our group’s rule for cultural authenticity and cooperative participation. We all felt like we were home.
The Challenge Facing Multiracial Churches
When the Reverend Mihee Kim-Kort, minister and author of Yoked (with her husband Andy), considers her faith formation, she effortlessly recalls her childhood Korean-American church: “Every Sunday was full. We would get up early in the morning, usually hauling containers of food to donate to the church. The 20-minute drive was a little sleepy, but as soon as we stepped foot through the church doors and saw other families, we stirred and started to run and play with the other children. Adults would yell at us to slow down, or tell us to insa—respectfully greet—the elders and deacons of the church, pinch our cheeks, and say how fast we were growing up.”
Connecting treasured memories to the present, she continues: “When I think back to it, now I remember how clear it was that something different happened to my parents on Sundays. I saw the tension melt from their faces as they settled into the pews and chairs. I saw the comfort and familiarity in which they carried conversations like a burden being lifted from their shoulders. I saw the way they laughed easily, and happily talked and shared with other church members. My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when I was just a baby, so this church was a slice of home for them.”
It seems the “slice of home” Kim-Kort describes is in danger of being severely restricted when we move out of mono-cultural spaces. If you follow reports on popular church trends, you’ve probably noticed an increase in conversations about multiracial churches. Most regularly defined as a congregation in which the majority racial group is no more than 80 percent of the population, the number of multiracial congregations (and those seeking to be multiracial) is on the rise.
As the number of studies, books, and articles proliferate on the subject, we’ve been able to take a peek into how multiracial churches operate. Sociologists have found that often, multiracial churches choose to avoid conversations regarding race. By seeking to transcend race, multiracial churches attempt to avoid cultural conflicts that might not otherwise arise in homogenous churches. But whether homogenous or multiracial, what do we lose by not actively engaging our racial and ethnic identities?