By Jeff Brumley
Many think of multiracial congregations as places where understanding grows between blacks, Hispanics and whites on social and justice issues.
But a newly published study suggests that the opposite is true in many such congregations. Instead, it found that minorities often adopt the views of white members on matters of race, economic inequality and criminal justice.
And that doesn’t sit well with some Baptist clergy who serve congregations known for their racial diversity.
“It disturbs me to know this study is out there,” said Elijah Zehyoue, pastoral resident and an acting associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington.
Zehyoue was speaking about “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality” published in the journal Sociology of Religion.
Scholars from three universities participated in the research.
“We find little evidence that multiracial congregations promote progressive racial views among attendees of any race or ethnicity,” the researchers wrote.
Minorities who attend multicultural churches often hold different views on socioeconomic disparities from members of predominantly black or Hispanic congregations, the study found.
‘Listening to minority voices’
Zehyoue said he is troubled by the study because it suggests that the growing number of churches embracing the multiracial model may not be producing acceptance and understanding between the races.
“The hope is when you bring a group together that everybody’s awareness increases,” he said
But Zehyoue added that he is not surprised by the findings because many multicultural congregations are diverse in membership, but not in leadership.
Without inviting blacks and Hispanics into leadership positions as staff or lay people, the concerns and viewpoints of minorities are not heard, let alone valued.
Which undermines the point of congregational multiculturalism, Zehyoue said.
“That’s one of the underlying principles of integration across the board — so you have more diverse people contributing” to the life of the congregation, he said.
Without that, minorities who are willing to remain are likely to adopt the attitudes of the white majority who are running the church, he added.
This isn’t the case at Calvary, where members are encouraged to share on everything from racial and criminal justice issues to worship services.
“One solution is legitimately listening to minority voices in the congregation, whatever they have to say,” he said.
‘Little room for dissent’
But those pursuing racial integration need not despair about the findings, said Trey Lyon, Cooperative Baptist field personnel serving as community pastor at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The study findings likely apply to few congregations like Park Avenue Baptist, a small church with a congregation that reflects its multicultural community.
Instead, the research seems to apply more to larger, mostly white evangelical churches that hold conservative theological, social and political views, he said.
In those larger churches the congregation may be diverse but the leadership is not.
“There is little room for dissent” on socioeconomic issues, Lyon said.
Often, African Americans who attend these churches already are ideologically in sync with majority white attitudes on race, law enforcement and justice, he said.
In smaller churches that foster intimacy, ethnic diversity usually does produce the progressive thinking that the study noted was missing.
“When you are closer to people, then my struggle becomes your struggle,” he said.
Adopting majority attitudes
Reputation can also have something to do with it, said Scott Stearman, pastor of Metro Baptist Church in New York City.
Those attracted to Metro are attracted to its dedication to social justice causes, Stearman said. The membership is predisposed to taking on the difficult issues and discussions of race.
“The challenge is to always put forth the call of empathy for the least of these, the disadvantaged,” he said.
That runs counter to the majority view, promoted in many churches, that minorities are disproportionately poor because they haven’t worked hard enough to improve their own situations, he said.
“You have to remind people that it’s not simply a matter of choices that people make,” Stearman said.
Stearman said he wasn’t surprised by the study because it’s common for minorities who rise up the economic latter to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of those in power.
A person who achieves success and adopts majority attitudes on race and poverty often finds it even more difficult to examine social complexities, Stearman said.
“As you gain economic privilege, you tend to look down on those who haven’t taken the same path,” he said.