Take us to church: Beloved Community Symposium

Take us to church: Beloved Community Symposium

Mercer University, local clergy and local lay leaders are working to diversify America’s most segregated hour.

Michael Emerson, co-director of the Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, was the keynote speaker at this year’s “Building the Beloved Community Symposium,” an event aimed at bringing together Christians of different races.

Emerson delivered his second keynote address on Feb. 11. The address, entitled “Race and the Church: Christians Joining God for Change,” highlighted the state of interracial worship in America.

Emerson demonstrated some of the progress made in diversifying churches by comparing statistics from 1998 and 2012.

“There has been a movement… towards more integrated congregations,” Emerson said.

In 1998, only 7 percent of churches in the United States were classified as interracial, meaning no racial group comprised more than 80 percent of the congregation, and only 10 books had been written on the subject.

By 2012, 13 percent of churches across the nation were classified as interracial. A large number of scholarly articles, books and college courses on the topic have cropped up.

However, Emerson also noted that the current progress is far from where it needs to be. Congregations in the United States are still 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods surrounding them and 20 times more segregated than public schools.

“Benjamin Mays (mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) would be very sad,” Emerson said.

This failure to integrate has consequences for all involved, according to Emerson. Segregated churches reproduce inequality, separate friendship networks, strengthen racial divisions and heighten political conflict.

“We can’t relate to people we don’t know well,” Emerson said.

However, those who attend or have attended interracial churches are more likely to have friends of different races and altered racial attitudes.

“Religion has the incredible potential to overcome our national divide,” Emerson said.

After Emerson’s speech came questions from the crowd. Audience members expressed concern that the increase in interracial worship has occurred because African-Americans move into white congregations. White worshippers were not as receptive to change, audience members said.

Emerson agreed that African-Americans were more likely to join white congregations. However, ‘homogenization’ should not be the goal.

“You can’t put a puzzle together unless every piece differs from each other,” Emerson said. “You don’t get that unity of the puzzle unless we are all different.”

Justis Ward, a Mercer University sophomore, noted that progress is being made in the community but that more steps need to be taken.

“I think it’s awesome that the community came together to express their concerns regarding race and religion,” said Ward. “However, it concerns me that of the many visitors in attendance who took the floor to give their input on the topic… only one was white. True progress cannot take place in this city until whites, too, become fully involved in the conversation.”