“Sunday shouldn’t be the most segregated day of the week.”
“Is corporate America more integrated than your church?”
“Church should be as integrated as Heaven.”
These are headlines on billboards you may have recently noticed, brought to you by Hope Church.
You might be wondering why we feel the urge to so publicly advocate diversity.
Since our founding 24 years ago, we have been intent upon being an open and welcoming church home to people from all walks of life. As one step to encourage our diversification, last year we invited an African-American pastor, Rufus Smith, to share preaching responsibilities with Eli Morris and me. Smith came to Hope from Houston, Texas, where he led a multiracial congregation.
Nevertheless, we have not achieved the level of racial or generational diversity in our congregation to realize our aspiration of mirroring the greater community’s population.
While our goal has always been to be a church that does look like Memphis, we haven’t been overtly vocal about it externally. The billboards are simply a very straightforward expression of the long-held beliefs of our leadership and our congregation.
The objective of the communications initiative is to remind ourselves and our own congregation that we have a long way to go, as well as to encourage those from all over the Memphis area to visit us.
We believe this need to diversify is echoed throughout the United States. According to Dr. Michael Emerson, sociology professor at Rice University and perhaps the country’s leading researcher on multiethnic churches, 93 percent of the nation’s 350,000 churches are racially homogeneous; only 7 percent are considered multiethnic.
We realize that progress has been made in churches throughout greater Memphis, including Hope, in overcoming a deeply rooted history of people choosing to worship with people like themselves. However, we want to be more outspoken about our own commitment to diversity and encourage more conversation about the matter throughout the faith community.
Why do we feel the need to break the mold of homogeneity during worship? Why isn’t it OK to sit during worship next to and develop friendships with those who look only like ourselves?
The issue is about trust. Trust that is built over time by forging honest, civil and productive relationships with those who are not like us.
Our contention is this: It is not solely the responsibility of government or the corporate community to solve the problems of racism in our city. It is clearly the faith community’s responsibility to bring people together, person by person, family by family. It is only the faith community that can help build one-to-one relationships that engender trust at a level that makes people want to sit side by side in church. It is up to us to create an environment that makes people feel safe in exploring unknown cultural waters. It is up to us to produce activities and programs that break down barriers, open up dialogue and build mutual respect.
Hope’s campaign is also designed to promote conversation about tolerance and inclusiveness. If we can get people talking and re-examining their comfort zones when it comes to sharing the worship experience, we will have accomplished something. And while we would like for people from all walks of life — young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian — who are seeking a worship experience to consider a visit to Hope, we will be pleased if we have simply amplified the conversation.
Promoting civil, honest and sacred conversations to build trust — that’s what this initiative is all about. Because only when we truly trust one another will Memphis become a unified community. Wouldn’t it be groundbreaking, gratifying and healing for Memphis to be in the 7 percent of the nation’s churches that are racially diverse?
Join our conversation about this at facebook.com/HCmemphis.
Dr. R. Craig Strickland is senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church and a Faith in Memphis panelist.