Race and religion, then and now

The Jeremiah Wright saga, no doubt, triggered a lot of talk about the state and history of the black church in the U.S.

And about the relationship between race (and racism) and religion in this country.

The AP talked to people across the country about how their experiences regarding race affect their faith (and vice versa). I don’t know how many people saw the lengthy feature, penned by Shelia Byrd and contributed to by several others, so here it is:

(NOTE: The picture, by the AP’s Frank Franklin II, is of Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem.)

Associated Press Writer

Jesse McGee points to trophies he won in local marathons. He mentions his work with youth and volunteer school programs. He praises his church’s efforts to deliver scripture lessons to inmates.

For more than an hour, the 84-year-old church deacon, who is black, chats about his life, largely ignoring the subject at hand: racism.

It isn’t until his wife, Warine, sheepishly shares that their son’s wife is white that McGee offers a confession: He had been uncomfortable with the union for nearly 30 years — until his Bible study class offered enlightenment.

His story represents a snapshot of how America’s racial landscape is navigated daily, often with religion as guidance.

The issue of race drew sharp focus as Barack Obama’s contentious split with his longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, played out in a national glare. In response, the United Church of Christ and National Council of Churches USA called on 10,000 ministers to initiate a “sacred conversation on race.”

7dbe6b83df7e440fbdccceda6f485b1f.jpg“The realities of race have not been addressed adequately,” says the Rev. John Thomas, president of the UCC. “Racism continues to demean and diminish human lives in this country.”

To listen in on that conversation, Associated Press reporters across the nation engaged pastors and parishioners about their individual experiences with racism.

They talked with a choir soprano whose faith fueled her defiance of racist laws, and with members of an all-white congregation that took the risky move of hiring a black pastor. They interviewed ministers who act as a conduit between the alienated and those who would judge them.

They found personal stories, like McGee’s, where religion can soothe a painfully sensitive dialogue and help summon mutual respect.

The conversation, which grew loud and rancorous around the Wright episode, started long before and continues afterward, but in softer tones that show the faithful want to be constructive, want to make progress, want their voices heard. Listen.


The picture on the fireplace mantel at McGee’s home in Jackson, Miss., shows a young man whose cream-colored skin hints at his mixed-race heritage.

It is far more than the likeness of a grandson — the offspring of the union between McGee’s black son and white daughter-in-law. For this grandfather, the picture also is a reflection of a black man’s spiritual journey through the painful past of a Jim Crow society to acceptance and love that ended at a church altar.

It was 1972 when McGee’s son, James Brooks, told him he had done something that was unfathomable in the older man’s mind. Brooks had married a fellow graduate student at the University of Michigan — a native New Yorker, and she was white.

The young couple moved to Mississippi that year to teach at what is now Jackson State University. The campus had been the site of racial violence that left two black men dead in 1970.

From the beginning, McGee was beset with unease.

“I had to work on that one. I was raised here, and that was a no-no. I know what would happen to you here if you just looked at (a white woman),” McGee said. “I’ve gotten past that now. When we started studying about ‘one blood’ that was a big help.” Continue reading