I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. early in life, but I cannot recall attending an MLK Jr. Day church service until I was 25.
Jan. 16 arrived roughly seven months after I moved to Moultrie – a rural town in South Georgia – to serve at Trinity Baptist Church.
The pastor, Michael Helms, asked me to attend an MLK Jr. Day service with him, held at a predominantly black Baptist church in the community.
While Helms would leave within the next year to serve as pastor at another Georgia church, the experience was positive and meaningful, and so I attended the next year with my fiance (and now wife).
I don’t remember many specific details from these services, but one distinct memory comes to mind: I was one of only a handful of white folks in attendance.
King’s often-quoted statement from a 1960 “Meet the Press” interview comes to mind as I reflect on this experience: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.”
While admittedly anecdotal, being one of only a handful of white folks at the MLK Jr. Day services I’ve attended makes me believe that the issue of segregated worship not only remains a challenge but also extends outside Sunday morning worship.
King’s words are a prophetic reminder 57 years later that reconciliation is a central calling of the Christian church (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) and that it will only happen through intentional efforts to worship together across the various lines that divide us.
However, I believe that we do a disservice to the progress that the Christian community has made and misrepresent the current situation by neglecting to remember and reflect upon King’s follow-up comments.
“I definitely believe the Christian church should be integrated,” King continued. “And any church that stands against integration and has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness.”
Just prior to these remarks King had acknowledged that his church was segregated (it had no white members).
But he quickly made an important distinction that offers a means to more accurately (and constructively) assess local churches regarding their efforts toward racial reconciliation.
“I might say that my church is not a segregating church,” he explained. “It’s segregated, but not segregating. It would welcome white members.”
King’s distinction between a segregating church and a segregated church should be emphasized because there are many reasons (besides racism) why many congregations have been (and continue to be) segregated in the U.S.
I’ve been a member of a handful of Baptist churches in my life, all of which were predominantly (though certainly not wholly) white.
Were these congregations racist? Of course not. They were, to borrow King’s distinction, segregated but not segregating.
I’m certainly not denying that racism continues to exist or that racism is a historical and contributing factor to why some churches were segregated.
Yet, it seems too simplistic (and inaccurate) to suggest that racism is the primary reason that a local church might be largely segregated in 2017.
It seems to me that progress with regard to racial reconciliation within the Christian community should not be measured only by looking at the racial diversity (or lack thereof) during a church’s worship hour.
While this is one means of assessment, an internal analysis of the congregation’s attitude and outlook seems to be equally important.
That segregated churches continue to exist in large numbers – within every denomination and no matter the predominant race or ethnicity – is problematic for a faith that believes “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
Yet, I feel that since King’s 1960 interview the Christian community has seen a significant decline in churches that could accurately be called segregating. I imagine it would be difficult to find a local church today that “stands against integration.”
This should be more widely recognized and celebrated. Yet, too often progress of the church’s ministry of reconciliation regarding racism is dismissed or swept aside in favor of pessimism and lamentation.
That being said, more telling than a segregated Sunday worship hour is a continued lack of racial diversity in MLK Jr. Day church services.
These annual observances offer a ready-made opportunity for a community’s congregations to unite for worship and service.
They are an opportunity for churches to recognize and give thanks for God’s work through King and others who “fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7) by offering a prophetic challenge to the sin of racism and to recommit to the ministry of reconciliation in all of its dimensions.
I hope that more churches and church members will be intentional about crossing denominational and racial lines to gather for worship and to partner in service over the MLK Jr. holiday weekend.
Perhaps new congregational connections will turn into ongoing partnerships and new acquaintances into lasting friendships.
EthicsDaily.com hopes more congregations will observe MLK Jr. Day each year and find ways to partner with other community churches in common good initiatives.
In the days ahead, a number of articles will be posted related to the annual holiday and ministries of reconciliation. A free resource sheet is available here.
We hope this content is informative and inspiring, and we hope readers will post them on social media, use them as conversation starters in Bible studies and reprint them in church newsletters.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series of articles about local churches and associations participating in MLK Jr. Day observances and engaging in racial reconciliation initiatives.