Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Most Segregated Hour?

I’ve heard it over and over again…that the hour between 11.00 Sunday morning and 12.00 noon is the most segregated hour in America. Why? Because it’s when we all go to our separate, racially-divided, churches.

Except that I don’t buy it.


Because sometimes something that clearly looks like one thing on the surface is actually something else.

Imagine walking into a college dining hall and seeing three tables: one has nine black students and one white; one has eight white students, one black, and one Asian; and the other has eight Asians and two Hispanics. It would be easy to assume that for the most part, these tables are intentionally divided up by race or ethnicity.

Until you did a little digging…and found that the 10 students at the first table are all from Buffalo, the 10 at the second table are all in the choir; and the 10 at the third table all live on the same floor of the same dorm. People do like to hang out with people who they have some sort of connection with, whether or not it’s one that’s obvious to others.

Now let’s take another look at that “most segregated hour.”

I’ll grant you that some denominations were created from rifts over racial issues. Many denominations split in the run-up to the Civil War over the issue of slavery. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 as the result of a dispute within the greater Baptist church over whether or not slave owners could serve as missionaries. The Presbyterians split in 1861 over the issue of slavery, but for the most part rejoined in 1983. The African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were created when African-Americans left certain Methodist congregations in the 1800s to form their own, as a result of discrimination against them.

But they don’t tell the whole story. Some denominations exist because of the traditions that different ethnic groups brought with them when they came to this country. Despite their goal to see themselves as a more inclusive and representative denomination, my own Evangelical Lutheran Churchin America (often referred to as the ELCA) is still a largely ethnic church, having large numbers of people of German and Scandinavian descent; those people having brought the Lutheran tradition with them from their home countries. And as Scandinavians and Germans are to the Lutheran Church, Italians, Irish, and Hispanics are to Roman Catholicism.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in a congregation with a growing number of African-American members; and I had a fair number of friends who were African-American and Roman Catholic.

Of course there are theological differences; while both being Christians, the largely white Roman Catholic Church and the largely black AME Church have slightly different slants on Christianity, and that’s a very important thing to consider. In addition there are just plain stylistic differences. Many people wouldn’t know a theological difference if it bit them on the nose, but change the music, and you’ve got issues. I’ve often said that given a choice between a black church that did Bach and a white church that did Gospel, many African-Americans would choose the white church…not even thinking about the theology.

And what is Gospel music anyway? To a black audience it means one thing, and to a white audience it means something else. So when a large enough number of African-Americans join a certain congregation that the musical style starts to change, are the white people who leave doing so because they’re racist or simply because the style has changed? And if it’s the latter, haven’t a lot of us done that, no matter who we are or what church we’re in?

So…is the hour from 11.00 Sunday morning until noon the most segregated one or the most diverse one? I say it depends on how you define diversity. If you look at the cereal aisle in the supermarket, the question is “are we looking at the aisle or at the box?” If we’re looking at what’s inside of individual boxes, then a box of Corn Flakes is all Corn Flakes, a box of Wheaties is all Wheaties and a box of Cheerios is all Cheerios. Seems pretty segregated to me. But if you look at the aisle, and all the choices you have, from Corn Flakes to Wheaties, to Trix, to Apple Jacks, to Cinnamon Harvest, and who knows what all else; that’s a pretty diverse selection. And it’s a selection that gives everyone something to choose from.

Calling it the most segregated hour implies that people have no choice as to where they worship, and are forced to worship along ethnic lines. But the fact that I grew up in the Episcopal Church and am now a Lutheran, the fact that I knew black kids who were Catholics, and the fact that I know Italians who belong to traditionally black churches, prove that that’s not the case.

Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper than what you see on the surface, and find out more about the kids at those tables in the dining hall.

And what kind of cereal they eat.


  1. Roman Catholics are not mostly white. The ones in the United States are, but they are a tiny percentage of the billion Catholics world wide.

  2. Well...I was talking about the situation here in the US, which is what most people are talking about when they refer to "The Most Segregated Hour."