Segregation vs. diversity in church

It was in 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous observation about Sunday mornings:

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We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God.

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A new study by two profs shows that things haven’t changed all that much: 9 in 10 congregations have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of membership.

Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, and Christopher P. Scheitle, senior research assistant at The Pennsylvania State University, published the findings in the academic journal Sociological Inquiry in August.

“Socially, we’ve become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses. But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm,” Dougherty says in a statement.

The study shows that churches have a particularly hard time keeping minority members they already have.

Congregations that are diverse share certain characteristics: diverse leadership; racially inclusive worship; and they provide opportunities for members to get togetheer.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a white member of a Latino church or a black attending a white church or what the specific groups are,” Dougherty says. “If you’re the under-represented group, do you call it ‘my church’? That feeling of ‘us’ is the key.”

Photo: Library of Congress

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.