“Charmaine Pruitt wrote the names of 12 churches on strips [of paper], and dropped them into a bag. It was Sunday morning and time to pick which church to attend.”
That’s how journalist Campbell Robertson began his investigative account of how Christians of color are abandoning white Evangelicalism (“A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches,” New York Times, March 9, 2018).
“Two years earlier, there would have been no question,” Robertson continued. “Ms. Pruitt would have been getting ready for her worship service” at Gateway Church, a mostly-white megachurch in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But she stopped attending that church after realizing that it was not meant for people of color like her.”
She pulled a strip of paper out of the bag. “Mount Olive Fort Worth. That was where she would go that day.”
Remarkably, Ms. Pruitt’s story—a story about racism in the white church—was not dredged up from America’s Jim Crow past; rather, it was composed and published in 2018.
In recent decades, sociologists and religious leaders had dared to hope “that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America.” Denominational leaders talked about “racial reconciliation;” religious organizations dedicated themselves to integration; and many Christians of color “join[ed] white-majority congregations. Indeed, the 2012 National Congregations Study reported that more than two-thirds of those attending white majority churches were worshiping alongside black congregants.”
Then Donald Trump was elected President; white Christians went ga-ga over the election results; and that was the end of racial reconciliation.
Actually, the erosion started before the 2012 election. Black congregants in white churches “had already grown uneasy as they heard prayers for law enforcement;” they heard that they should keep their eyes fixed on Jesus; and “they heard that the church was colorblind—but they never heard their pastors condemn police shootings of unarmed African-Americans.”
Many Evangelicals “did not even know” who Trayvon Martin was. When Christians of color mentioned his death, white church members accused them of “being divisive.”
If white pastors and congregants sensed the disquiet, they “didn’t talk about it much,” Robertson noted. They seemed to think, “O.K., there may have been racial conflict in America, back in the 1960s. But it settled down. People of color got a national holiday—Martin Luther King Day—and then a Black president. What more do they want?”
In the weeks before the 2016 election, it was impossible to miss the not-so-subtle message proclaimed from Evangelical pulpits: If there is a minor “race problem in the country,” it isn’t important. But this “election is extremely important. The country is in trouble” economically; “a critical Supreme Court appointment awaits;” and the Democrats want to “us[e] ‘your taxpayer dollars,’ for abortion [and] to change our constitution. We are going the wrong way. We need to pray and vote.”
Most preachers never said explicitly to vote for Mr. Trump, but their intent “was lost on no one: [You] must vote [for] Christian values; the Republican Party platform reflected those values; and Mr. Trump was the Republican candidate.”
As a result, white Christians “voted for Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate,” Robertson said. Meanwhile, Christians of color listened to “Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his hostility [toward] N.F.L. players protesting police brutality, and his earlier ‘birther’ [attacks on] President Obama,” with horror. Many concluded, with Professor Chanequa Walker-Barnes of Mercer University, that “‘something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church.’”
It was “a scattered exodus—a few here, a few there—and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage.” At first, Ms. Pruitt planned “to take some time off” from Gateway Church. Then a white acquaintance cornered her and “explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied” in scripture. She showed Ms. Pruitt a sheet of paper, on which was written: “‘The Spirit of God says, “I have chosen Donald Trump for such a time as this.’” Barack Obama, the white acquaintance continued, should never have been president, since he was not a United States citizen. [She added] that Ms. Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on. Ms. Pruitt never went back.”
Trump’s electoral victory was seen by many white Christians “as a ‘supernatural answer to prayer,’ and it generated excitement at [Gateway] Church.” Pastor Robert Morris, boasted that he was one of Trump’s spiritual advisers. But to the extent that he ever talked about racism, he “did not address [its] enduring structural legacy;” instead, he focused on “individual prejudice.” And he did not seem to have “wrestled with his support of Donald Trump.”
Journalist and Columbia University professor Deborah Jian Lee tells a similar—and equally painful—story; a year before Robertson’s article was published, she wrote about George Mekhail, an Egyptian-American pastor of a Seattle megachurch, who had been threatened at a party by an inebriated man who thought he looked like a terrorist (“Betrayed at the Polls, Evangelicals of Color at a Crossroads,” Religion Dispatches, April 27, 2017). This occurred “one month after the election of Donald Trump.”
The 2016 election “changed everything for evangelicals of color,” said Lee. “The fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals supported a candidate who channeled white nationalism is not lost on minority believers. Nor are the travel bans, White House appointments of white nationalists, mass deportations and racial hate crimes.”
Black worshipers noticed little things—casual remarks and jokes that revealed church leaders’ racial insensitivity. “An associate pastor [would] refer[r] to a black man as the one God left in the oven a little long” (“A Quiet Exodus”). A “pastor [would] joke about how King Nebuchadnezzar’s Median Wall was built because he “got the Mexicans to pay for it.”
Despite all this, “believers of color are redefining their relationships with white evangelicalism in ways that [will] dramatically shift” the religious landscape of America, Lee noted. “Already, [they comprise] a larger portion of the American Christian population than [ever] before, and they will [be] the majority Christian population after 2042. Moreover, their values are largely at odds with the white evangelical support for Trump.” Inevitably, these demographic shifts will swamp the religious right and its discriminatory views and policies.
Lee added that the 2016 election victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one for Evangelicals; while they captured the White House, they lost Christians of color and younger Americans—the very people they will need to help their churches and denominations fend off the attrition that they worry so much about. To add insult to injury, conservative Christians of all races and ages are reconsidering whether or not to continue identifying themselves as “evangelical,” because the evangelical moniker has been hijacked by activists seeking to maintain the political, economic and social supremacy of whiteness.”
Shortly after being confronted by the inebriated man at the party, Rev. Mekhail resigned from his leadership position at the megachurch and left evangelicalism. He now encourages churches and denominations to “bring their policies out of the shadows.”
“Ambiguous church policies hurt congregants,” Rev. Mekhail noted. Many churches “claim to ‘welcome everybody,’” but quietly maintain ideas and policies that “exclude particular communities. For people of color, rhetorical claims to inclusion are [often] betrayed by [all-]white leadership teams, tokenism of minorities, [and] the discrediting of theologies from other cultures.”
Indeed. As the Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, an Associate Conference Minister in the UCC’s New York Conference, has pointed out, it is not hard to find UCC churches that use inclusive welcoming statements in their worship (e.g., “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”)—but are not actually inclusive or welcoming: if a black family were to walk into their worship services, congregants’ response might well be to crank their heads and gawk.
Will UCC churches benefit from this minority exodus from white Evangelical megachurches? Will Christians of color who leave such congregations flock to UCC churches? Perhaps, but a more fundamental question is this: Will UCC congregations and Conferences themselves struggle to live fully into our shared commitment to be a multi-racial, multi-cultural church?
By now I hope it’s clear that I do not write any of this to scoff at, or to make fun of, white evangelical churches. This article is not about schadenfreude. Rather, I believe that the awkward relationship that people of color have with white evangelical churches is emblematic of the tenuous relationship they have with all white churches, including mainline and progressive churches. UCC churches. Indeed, what the Robertson and Lee articles point to most clearly is the great difficulty that all white churches have with race.
These days, Rev. Mekhail wonders if “‘there is anything redeemable’” about the religious right. “‘I think [it is an] empire that’s about to fall. It’s too powerful and [too focused on] money.’ Rather than centering [on] the needs of the marginalized and [on doing] justice, [it promotes] capitalism, unsustainable growth, a prosperity narrative, flashy services and pastors who hang with celebrities.”
“‘We’re at the part of the story where Jesus goes into the temple and flips over tables.’”
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.