In true church fashion, the panel discussion on religion, race and interfaith relations sponsored by UMKC last Tuesday began late. Rev. Rick Behrens, Linda Collins, Rev. Tina L. Harris, and Brian Key chaired the panel. After some trouble with the microphones, the moderator, Rabbi David Glickman, was able to get the discussion underway.
The central question was whether or not the American expression of religion divides along racial and religious lines. All the moderators were in agreement that the history of American religion has been defined by racial segregation, both explicitly and implicitly. Rabbi Glickman opened with the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “’I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours…’”
In Kansas City, the racist housing policies that kept minorities out of neighborhoods west of Troost and other affluent quarters have produced a separation of churches. Most congregants attend a church that is a majority of one ethnicity, be it white, black or Latino. In fact, only two of the four panelists felt that their churches were truly racially diverse. Rev. Behrens, the pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, saw the focus on church growth as a major contributing factor today to the creation of homogenous fellowships instead of diverse ones. He said that the emphasis should be on the quality of a community, not the number of attendants on Sunday morning. Rev. Behrens pastors in an area that went from being just three percent Latino to seventy-percent in under a decade. His congregation was more able to adjust to the changing racial landscape of his neighborhood and Grandview Park Presbyterian is now almost half and half white and Latino.
“The thing that helped us in our transition, by the time that I arrived in 1982 as a seminary intern working with neighborhood kids,” said Rev. Behrens. “Was that kids’ ministry that we stayed true to…when the kids in the neighborhood changed, we knew we had to change.”
Rev. Behrens also had to adjust his own church’s culture to accommodate the needs of the Latino members. He found that instead of doing the standard, coffee chat time and replacing it with a shared meal brought a real sense of family to the congregation. Meals, in fact, were a consistent theme throughout the discussion. The adage, “Who’s at your dinner table is who’s in your church,” was picked up by almost all of the panelists.
Brian Key, a pastor representing the hosting church, Redeemer Fellowship, openly admitted that they had yet to achieve a real measure of diversity in their own congregation. The crowd, which was made up of mostly white attendants, reflected that. Linda Collins, from New Life in Christ International Ministries, represented the other side of that issue because her church was almost completely black.
Both are proof that while the American church is moving towards racial reconciliation and becoming more integrated, there is a lot of work to be done. For Rev. Tina Harris the difficulty comes in the fact that her congregation has high levels of poverty, homelessness and mental illness. For her church, just getting meals to people consumes most of their ministry time, so addressing the racial tensions is difficult. Brian Key and Redeemer Fellowship see the challenge as a need to make the culture of their church more welcoming to people of different ethnicities. They are focusing on developing things like having varying musical and preaching styles, educating members on the issues of race in America and creating a minority pastoral residence program.
The second part of the discussion, whether or not the American expression of religion divides amongst religious lines, wasn’t directly addressed. Rabbi Glickman was the only non-Christian on the panelist, which the organizers said was due to a lack of response to the invitations they sent out to various religious groups in Kansas City.
In so far as the question of whether American Christianity divides along racial lines, the resounding opinion of the panel was that it did and often still does, but it doesn’t have to. The measures being taken by different groups around the city are encouraging steps towards congregations more representative of the worldwide diversity that Christianity possesses.