At the time of the O. J. Simpson trial in the winter of 1995, a wave of concern arose for the continued racial divisions in the United States and for the sharply differing ways that those divisions were seen through black, brown, or blue eyes. For some communities, such public focus on the issue has not occurred for a generation—not since the civil rights era in the 1960s. People remembered W. E. B. Dubois’ statement that the problem of the color line is the problem of the 20th century. In the mid-1990s, newspapers were full of accounts of the separateness of black and white society. People formed interracial discussion groups.

Yet the focus of concern in 1995 was different from what it had been a generation earlier in the 1960s. In the civil rights era, the energy for change had been directed outward (toward visible and legally sanctioned racial division) and directed at a specific region of the country—the South. In the post-O.J. era, the energy was directed inward, toward self-questioning.

A number of mainline Protestant denominations—among them the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association—have launched prominent initiatives concerning race in the past decade. The focus of these initiatives has been to move beyond division, to create the internal conditions of welcome and to reach outward across racial and ethnic boundaries. These initiatives have included extensive training, interventions with ministers and other congregational leaders, and comprehensive training of denominational executives and other staff. Ongoing commissions or task forces monitor the work and advocate for its importance, and provide support for those involved. To move beyond division, denominations have mandated or strongly encouraged local congregations to reach out across divisions and—most especially—to examine their own hidden assumptions and biases.

Unique Denominational Dimensions
Building leadership adept at working creatively across cultural boundaries and with cultural change is now a key strategic issue in congregations and for the entire continent. Mindful of this development, the Alban Institute launched its Negotiating Cultural Boundaries Project under the leadership of Jacqueline Lewis. In support of this initiative I have held conversations with people from a variety of denominations; I have recently begun to extend these into a series of interviews.

The issue of cultural boundaries is complex, with unique dimensions in each denomination. The United Methodist Church is concerned for its relationships with the three black Methodist denominations. The Episcopal Church is recognizing the increasing contribution of people from other parts of the world Anglican Communion, such as the Caribbean and Africa. In the ELCA there is the more recent experience of congregations serving first as a bridge to American culture for immigrants (from countries like Germany, Norway, and Sweden) and sometimes helping to preserve their identities during periods of considerable hostility and persecution—especially for Lutherans of German descent.

These differences among denominations make generalization difficult. The issue has many dimensions, each of which needs to be explored. Yet in my discussions so far, I believe I have detected a pattern that I would now like to test.

A Triangle of Positions
While initiatives continue on the issue of race in many denominations and successes are reported, a pattern stands out: There is a broadly perceived feeling of blockage in the initiatives, with the energy of the blockage focused in three groups in each of the denominations:

  • The advocates— “leaders of color,” and to a certain extent the social-justice advocates;
  • The doubters—generally the large-church ministers; and
  • The denominational executives, who stand between these groups and whose role it is to lead the denomination ahead on the issue.

While this pattern applies most centrally to mainline Protestant denominations, it also appears to have surprising parallels in other groups, such as Roman Catholics and white evangelicals.

One remarkable similarity among all the interviews I conducted on race initiatives is the level of concern about confidentiality from people from all three groups. People from each group expressed great initial reluctance to talking about race at all, for fear of escalating conflict. Advocates stressed that I needed to understand that many in their denominations did not wish them well—rather, wished them gone. The doubters were similarly cautious. One large-church minister said, “Whenever I speak in public about the issue of race in our denomination, I feel I must start with my résumé—all the marching I have done.” A denominational leader described the issue of race in his denomination as the “third rail” of denominational politics. If denominational executives side with the advocates, they are seen as arbitrarily imposing an initiative on congregations. This alienates congregations, especially the large ones. If denominational leaders appear too understanding of the doubters, they raise questions about whether they support their own initiative and whether they are acceding to the power of large churches. If denominational executives avoid taking sides, they risk being seen as avoiding the issue. Yet once beyond an initial reluctance, many from each group wanted to talk and revealed considerable depth of thinking and reflection beyond their public personas.

The advocates were most likely to object to the notion that there is blockage in their denominations’ diversity efforts, pointing to recent denominational policy statements and initiatives. Yet, whatever hopeful signs of change they saw, they did acknowledge that the road was long—longer and harder than they had realized at the beginning. They often expressed frustration, anger, and honest bafflement about lack of results and a feeling that, basically, nothing changes. This torpor they ascribed to tenacious racism and guarding of privilege. Open racism may never be spoken, but in consequence it only becomes more insidious. Many said they were tired, and that they doubted whether their denominations were worth the energy and the spiritual and psychological toll that the work has taken.

The doubters felt caught. One female minister said, “People say or imply that I am a racist for voicing disagreement with what the denomination wants us to do. I know this congregation. I know this program wouldn’t work here. If I really were against it, I would say, ‘Sure, let’s just run the program.’” A number of the doubters said that the groups organizing the denominational program seemed to have little idea of how congregations—especially large congregations—work, and had shown disorganization in advance planning, clear communication, or arrangements. Some commented that the people organizing the work in their denominations seemed not to “get” congregations and tended to ascribe problems with the initiative too quickly to the resistance or apathy of the congregations.

Those in the third corner of the triangle, the denominational executives, expressed a range of views on their own denominations’ initiatives, from advocacy to doubt. Yet denominational leaders from across this spectrum expressed frustration at the no-win nature of the debate. It was an issue that they could not move forward and could not back away from. Many expressed frustration that they did not have better tools to offer their congregations, and sadness that their generation might be squandering its opportunity to tackle the race issue the same way the opportunity was squandered in the late 60s and ear
ly 70s.

Some noted that the total of the three groups involved in this debate is small, while far larger is the “silent majority”–which is appealed to, diagnosed, or accused. An older minister observed that while the passion of congregations for the issue of race in the civil rights era had dissipated quickly enough, the post–O. J. passions had proved even more fleeting. The apparent low interest, and ebbing interest, of most congregants and most congregations weighs heavily on the discussion.

In this triangle, the middle-judicatory executives—such as bishops, district superintendents, conference ministers, executive presbyters, and district presidents—play a difficult role, somewhat akin to that of a responsible eldest child in a troubled family. In mainline Protestant denominations, the initiatives on race have become especially difficult instances of more general trends. National executives feel that there are initiatives in which they must engage congregations broadly and that middle judicatories must assist. Middle judicatory leaders are close to congregations and have credibility with them. Yet middle judicatory leaders have diminishing power to mandate initiatives, especially to large congregations, and most especially on this issue. Congregations want to select from a range of resources that best fit the specific nature of local situations. At least by their lack of response, most congregations have made clear that they want something more and something different from the current denominational initiatives.

A blocked discussion such as this tends to narrow and harden how each group in the triangle—advocate, doubter, and executive—publicly presents its views. Each group is hesitant to express the complexity of its views, especially the dynamic, creative edge of self-doubt and new ideas. The tension of the disagreement sends each group into a false unity. A large-church minister commented that it is pretty hard to get large churches to agree on anything, but the way the denomination single-mindedly pushed the initiative did a pretty good job of creating unity. An advocate observed how the nature of the issue had submerged differences—and disagreements—and played back into the same old prejudice that “we all look the same.” A denominational executive expressed the view that his church body’s only chance of making progress required that regional and national staff of the denomination speak with a unified or, at least, coherent voice.

A Way Forward?
Is there a way forward for these denominations to a time when Sunday morning worship is not the most segregated hour of the week? Any full answer to this question would require exploring other dimensions of the issues of race and racism, including the demographic patterns revealed by the U.S. Census for 2000. Yet, if the pattern described here in fact exists, it suggests a clear diagnosis for why the discussion is blocked: none of the groups can display publicly the range and creativity of its thinking. This diagnosis opens a vision of two possible—though not easy—steps toward creating movement.

First, safe places need to be created where each group individually, and finally all the groups together, can express what they cannot or do not express publicly. These safe places might be within denominational groups. Holding these discussions within individual denominations would avoid the discomfort of publicly airing family discussions. Such a discussion might proceed better if people were assembled from different denominations and given a meeting place in more neutral territory. However the discussion is organized, the challenge is to have a new kind of conversation extending beyond well-mapped territory and venturing into the most creative—and also the riskiest—part of each group’s thinking.

Second, attention should move quickly to the current adaptive challenges of congregations, with time allowed for discussion of how congregations themselves experience these challenges. Both large-church ministers and denominational executives observed that this issue of race-related initiatives has become another incident in the ratcheting down of the power and authority of denominations that risk losing prestige both when they act and when they do not. Some felt that the denominations were reaching back for the heroic moment of the church’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Denominations don’t have the resources they had a generation ago—especially since the dot-com bubble burst and the national economy has weakened.

This second step toward creating movement is a big one. The focus on the challenge to adapt to change creatively and faithfully and on the congregations’ experience of these challenges in their own situations will lead toward fundamentally different thinking about the relationship of the local to the national. One minister observed that, if he could speak honestly, he and his congregation were unlikely to follow with energy any national initiative on such an issue. His congregation had become involved in a local initiative on fair housing, and his energy was more likely to go there—both because that was where the passion of his people was and because the effort had caused real community change. For this congregation and many others, the best possibility for action and effectiveness seemed to be in local or regional efforts. Such congregations are likely to energetically engage a denominational initiative only in the context of its connection with such local work. To serve these congregations, denominations need to go beyond explaining initiatives—they need to provide connection with a range of resources for doing what congregations are called to do in their local communities.

Resources for Clergy and Congregations 

  • Barndt, Joseph R. Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1991). The point of view that Barndt articulates is central to two major organizations that have worked with mainline denominations in their initiatives: Crossroads Ministry in Chicago and People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans.
  • Franklin, John Hope. The Color Line-Legacy for the Twenty-First Century. (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1993). Franklin brings up to date W. E. B. Dubois’ observation that the color line is the basic question of the century—of both the 20th and the 21st.
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” sermon preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968. Full text is

    This is the source of the much-quoted “most segregated hour” quotation and the vision for moving beyond it.

  • Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. (New York: New American Library, 1929). This is the classic statement of the argument that the basic divisions between denominations in the United States derive more from social factors such as race, ethnicity, and income than from differences of belief.
  • Yancey, George. Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1996). This is a basic statement of the racial reconciliation approach that has been popular in evangelical Christianity and groups such as Promise Keepers.