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Black member examines race relations in church

By Joyce Moore

The writer is a member of the United congregation in Columbia, Md., where she also resides. She works in the telecommunications business as a sales-account manager. She has also organized management-level "diversity" workshops for her company in Chicago, Ill.

"The experiences and views I relate are mine and mine alone, " she writes, "and my observations as such hold neither malice nor bias. Also, I ask those reading this article to be objective so that this personal perspective serves as a positive opportunity to see an aspect of humanity through another's eyes."

I was a child when I decided to pray to God--whoever He was--because I wanted to go to church somewhere. To this day I'm not sure what provoked this desire for contact with my Creator.

I knew that my aunt was a part of some church that met on Saturdays, but I didn't know anything about what was taught there. A year later our family began attending that church, the Worldwide Church of God.

When we were finally able to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Big Sandy, Texas, all the black brethren had to sit in the brown chairs in the back of the church tent and camp at the back of tent city. When I asked why we had to sit in the back and live in the back, my childish question was quickly dismissed with the response, "It's the law."

My perception then was that we as blacks were invited guests of the church and privileged to have an opportunity to be part of the body. We were lucky to be in the only true church that guaranteed salvation. We were expected to tolerate the worst accommodations at the Feast sites and told that it was our opportunity to build character.

Taught well

My mother was a "spiritual widow" with six children who was forever reminded that she had no husband, therefore a non-person. As African-Americans and members of a single-parent family, we had little voice in the church.

But, my mother taught us, her children, as her father had taught her, to respect ourselves, to hold our heads up and to do the best with the resources we had. We learned that it was better and less expensive to buy high-quality second-hand clothing, resulting in our looking as though we had more than we did. Some did not like that and thought we should look more impoverished.

I still clearly remember how upset my mother was when one man took it upon himself to reprimand my brother for talking to his daughter, when it was she who had the crush on him. In all my childhood years, I do not recall our family ever being invited to any nonblack brethren's house for dinner.

At church dances and social functions, we were expected to assimilate and adjust--with the right attitude--to having no one to dance with because there were few black males around.

These events were usually uninteresting for us since there was little for us to relate to musically or culturally. Music that was not of the classical, country-western or easy-listening genres was alluded to as being somehow connected with Satan. I actually thought that easy-listening music somehow made me closer to God, so that's what I listened to during my teen years.

Unspoken rules

At Ambassador College I was one of the few black students admitted. As such, there were unspoken rules for us: We were to date among ourselves, accept the fact that playing our music at a dance more than twice meant we were trying to take over, and, please, don't have a conversation with fellow blacks for more than a couple of minutes or someone was sure to ask what was wrong--as though we were preparing to launch full-scale social unrest.

I even had the interesting experience of sharing a room with a person who had never associated with blacks. She went to bed every time I came into the room, no matter what time of day it was. I finally moved out after our residence assistant concluded that I was somehow responsible for my roommate's misery.

In recent years, a former Ambassador staff member would entreat me to encourage black students to apply to the university, and I refused because I could not see that anything had changed from when I attended many years ago.

Since then, I have had the experience of visiting or attending more than 20 churches across the country. Professionally, I have facilitated diversity workshops that dealt specifically with racism and sexism. I spent a year in graduate studies of advertising, and I've had many opportunities to observe what makes humans react and respond.

Seen a bit of everything

As a black woman, I've seen and experienced a bit of everything: some positive, more (unfortunately) negative.

The negative experiences have run the gamut, from an entire church congregation expressing thinly veiled hostility towards me as an African-American showing up for church services (admittedly in an isolated area of the United States) when it wasn't the Feast, to having a cheerleading coach from Mississippi segregate her own squad and refuse to put meal tickets directly in my hand.

Before you dismiss these experiences as being myopic, overly sensitive or distorted through the lens of one woman's viewpoint, give yourself a little test. How many basketball games have you attended, secretly hoping that one team wins because there are just too many blacks on that other team?

Did you ever feel the church needed to be more careful of where literature was being placed so that the wrong people wouldn't be attracted. Or have you ever felt compelled to take over when sharing responsibilities with a black person, just to make sure the job was done right?

Have you ever, in a closed environment, discussed how many of those (black) people you have to support with both taxes and third tithe? I actually heard this discussed in a home Bible study.

These are but a sample of my experiences, and you may say: So what? Times have changed. Believe it or not, some of the scenarios I've just related are recent ones.

Direct marketing

If you are a Worldwide Church of God member and are proudly saying, "See how we've changed," remember my background in marketing? I know when a specific market is being targeted for acceptance.

I also understand brand loyalty, so I know that if I were, all other things being equal, merely neutral about a complete change in my set of beliefs, I would certainly look at the benefits that might come from staying where I felt most accepted.

In today's environment, when most African-Americans spend energy every single business day battling covert and overt racism and sexism in corporate America, in schools, even in the grocery store, depending on where you live, none of us really has the desire or inclination to fight it on the Sabbath.

Thus, we are reluctant to move into the unknown territory of a newly formed church in which we might have to face the battle for redefinition yet one more time.

Somebody wise and somewhat famous once said that to know where you are going you have to understand where you came from.

I hadn't really assessed where I came from, from the perspective of church and race, until I began to write this article. One of the positive things that has occurred out of the past year's turmoil is the cracks in the barriers we have put between us as men and women and as people in general.

Suggestions offered

In the spirit of serving as a catalyst to continue this process of growth, I offer these suggestions:

  • To those of you who have chosen to stay in the Worldwide Church of God, no matter what race you are, I hope you have made that choice based on what you have read directly from the Bible. If so, then Godspeed.
  • To those of you who have moved on to other churches and say that you are now "back at home," don't settle in so easily. Now is the time for you to start to examine yourself down to the core of your personal existence. We all tend to ignore, minimize or dismiss that which makes us uncomfortable, and, if comfort is the only reason you left the Worldwide Church of God, then your reason for leaving is no more valid than that of someone who chose to stay for comfort's sake.
  • To those of you who are ministers in whichever church you are in, I have to say I have never known anyone, in all my experience with racism and sexism, to change from those prejudices without first recognizing and acknowledging those traits within themselves.

I have found that many churches tend to take their lead from the surrounding environment, even as many church members take their lead from the ministry. Whether attitudes of omission, or acts of commission, many individuals acquire their prejudices not from actual experience, but from preconceived notions accumulated from family, friends, the news and entertainment media or their environment.

(If I can continue to be candid, I perceive that some may even think that the Worldwide Church of God's changes were brought about by one black man and they are going to see to it that it never happens again.)

If you view yourself as a Christian, and you are serious about coming before Christ without spot or wrinkle, then examining the source and substance of prejudice is an area you cannot ignore as an individual or as part of the greater body of the church.

When I wrote the letter to the editor that appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of In Transition, I wrote it to evoke commentary, discussion, even criticism. My agenda was to create consciousness. Not thinking is too comfortable, too easy, too growth-defeating.

My goal? When I walk into church and you see me, I want you to see a person striving to be like Christ who is no worse and no better than you as a Caucasian, Latino or Asian, and a person with a culture and history rich with treasures that you are welcome to share.

You see, I have made it plain that I accept you. After all, I'm still here.

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