As widespread reports of racial harassment and white supremacist activity continue across the country, the small, but growing, number of racially integrated churches are organizing. They’re organizing workshops, serving immigrants, and vowing to stand in solidarity with Muslims. In this difficult political climate, they contend that they are uniquely qualified to foster dialogue about race and advocate for marginalized groups — and bring diverse groups of Americans together in faith.
Their progressive social outlook marks a shift from predominantly white evangelical churches, a number of which have aligned themselves with the religious right since the 1970s. Over 100 days into his presidency, Donald Trump still enjoys widespread support from conservative Christians, with eight out of 10 white evangelicals who attend church monthly approving of his leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 39 percent of the general U.S. population feels the same. In fact, white evangelicals were heavily criticized when exit polls from the 2016 presidential election revealed that 81 percent of them backed Trump — a man repeatedly accused of sexually assaulting women and of peddling racial stereotypes.
Love L. Sechrest, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, said that Christians have long voted differently depending on their racial backgrounds. She pointed to the book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, first published in 2000, as evidence that Trump’s victory didn’t deepen racial divides among American Christians, but simply exposed them on a larger scale.
“The racialized rhetoric that came out of Trump’s campaign — it exploited a deep lack of comfort among white evangelicals regarding issues of race,” she said. “Many of them would say that they did not vote for Trump out of racial animus, but when it comes to the social psychology of race, no one wants to self-identify as a racist, even when one holds implicit aversions to people of color.”
Recent findings about evangelical voting patterns have raised concerns that the church has made little progress since 1963, when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared 11 a.m. Sunday the most segregated hour of the week. Most churches remain segregated to this day. Only 14 percent are considered racially diverse, according to The Faith Communities Today survey, which defines a church as multicultural if at least 20 percent of worshippers are of a different race from the majority of the congregation.
That’s what makes the work of some churches today particularly unique.
Since Fellowship Monrovia opened five years ago in suburban Los Angeles, confronting racial injustice has been part of its mission. Lead pastor Albert Tate is an African American from Mississippi who heads a multigenerational congregation comprised of whites, blacks, Asian Americans, and Latinos in Monrovia. Staff members have toured the south and met with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) to better understand the civil rights movement. They also recently visited Manzanar National Historic Site, where the federal government interned more than 10,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
“We want to be a church that doesn’t think alike or vote alike, that comes and wrestles with these issues.”
In July 2016, in the wake of the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Fellowship launched its Center for Racial Reconciliation, where churchgoers can have frank conversations about race during Gospel-centered workshops.
“The scriptures talk about being reconciled to your brothers and sisters, coming to an understanding and coming forward, not being biased, not being hateful,” said John Williams, the center’s director.
At multicultural churches, a black Democrat may be seated next to a white Republican seated next to an undocumented immigrant prohibited from voting.
“We want to be a church that doesn’t think alike or vote alike, that comes and wrestles with these issues,” Williams said, adding, “We have people who voted for Trump.”
Some of these voters have wondered if that makes them racist, and Williams has responded by offering to discuss their beliefs in more detail. “We try to hit these issues head on,” he said. “And then compare that to what we believe [as Christians].”
Sociologist Andrew Johnson, a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said that some Christian organizations shy away from discussions about race and gender for fear of alienating their members. He argues that evangelical churches are facing an identity crisis after Trump’s election, and it will likely result in progressive evangelicals distancing themselves from a term that’s become synonymous with a conservative religious agenda. Instead of evangelicals, he predicts that they’ll call themselves Jesus-followers or redemption Christians.
“The biggest work churches need to do is redeem their moral voice in society,” he said. “Over the past few decades, they have sacrificed being an unattached kind of moral voice for political power. People in this country no longer look to churches for moral guidance.”
Johnson said getting the public to view the church differently will be a difficult task but that multicultural churches may serve as a beacon for others.
Mark DeYmaz, the pastor of Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, says there’s no organization better than a multicultural and economically-diverse church to overcome race, class, and gender divisions. Like Fellowship Monrovia, Mosaic boasts a diverse leadership and congregation made up of Democrats and Republicans. Some are even politicians, like Arkansas State Senator Joyce Elliott (D).
“Racism is ultimately a spiritual problem,” said DeYmaz. “You can’t educate that out of people. You can’t legislate that out of people.”
“Legislation is super important and education is super important,” he added, “but at the end of the day, racism, racial tensions, all go back to the human heart. That’s not the role of the government and education to address. It’s the role of the faith community.”
To that end, Mosaic recently hosted a conference, United by Faith, to promote unity and diversity in churches. It has also worked to spur job creation in Little Rock and advocated for immigrants and refugees through its 10-year-old immigration counseling office that provides immigrants with virtually pro bono legal services.
DeYmaz says that multicultural churches can play an important role in shaping public perception on immigration and other policies. “When diverse people choose to walk, work, and worship God together as one with others who they may not share a cultural heritage with, they develop truly cross cultural relationships,” he said. “So, when they see on Fox News, ‘build the wall,’ they may have a political opinion but also think, ‘I know people who that affects personally.’”
But DeYmaz stressed that such transformative relationships can only occur in healthy multiethnic churches. In addition to diversity among congregants, churches need to encourage open communication about race, he said.
Jamila Vorise, a Southern California high school teacher and Christian since childhood, has attended churches where African Americans like her are in the minority. She prefers multicultural churches like Fellowship Monrovia — which she has visited — because they’re typically unafraid to apply the Gospel to real world issues. But she left a majority-white church she preferred not to name because the pastor there never once broached the subject of race.
“I felt uncomfortable, like my brothers and sisters in Christ — they don’t care about me, about my people or our struggle,” she said.
Rev. Dr. Liz Mosbo VerHage, the pastor of Global & Local Ministries at Quest Church in Seattle, has seen similar dynamics in her community. “We have an increase in people of color who are really looking for safe places and trying to make sense of their faith,” she said. “Churches have an opportunity and an invitation to really go deeper.”
For more than a decade, Quest has organized a Faith and Race conference to examine the unique challenges multicultural churches face. “Being part of a multicultural church is a huge privilege,” she said. “We have people whose stories are directly impacted when immigration law changes, when attitudes toward Black Lives Matter shift, when poverty and other issues are addressed.”
After the election, Quest opened its doors to the surrounding community and held a prayer service to accommodate the many people who were grieving over the results, VerHage said. The pastoral team also changed the following week’s sermon to address the election’s aftermath.
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena also opened its doors after the election — to undocumented immigrants, as a sanctuary church. “We are committed to being a safe place for anyone who feels frightened as a result of the threat of deportation or discrimination of any other kind,” said Rev. Susan Russell, the church’s senior communication associate.
This isn’t the first time church leaders are fighting for the oppressed. They opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, protested the Vietnam War and stood with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said Russell.
The days of Christians attending church simply to have a place to get married or baptize children, with no authentic connection to their faith, are ending.
“We recognize that we’ve been called to engage living out the gospel in a climate where our actions have political implications that we would argue are not partisan issues,” she said. “It’s not Republican or Democrat. We are called to live out our values, and part of that work is challenging oppressive systems when we run into policies that put into place systemic racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.”
Nadra Kareem Nittle is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.