A body divided Charleston churches take a hard look at their own racial separation

Jenetta Pinckney holds Ezra James, 7 months, as praise singers perform on stage during the 1Charleston Conference 2016.

It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who famously said that 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. But at a conference on church diversity and racial reconciliation at Charleston Southern University, the first speaker of the day issued a challenge from a source less familiar to white Christian ears: Malcolm X.

“You just spent all that time in church, and look at you: Ain’t nothing about your community has changed,” said the Rev. Bryan Loritts, paraphrasing the Muslim civil rights activist’s rebuke to Christians as they departed Harlem churches one Sunday morning in the 1960s.

Loritts’ challenge kicked off the Great (Co)+Mission Conference, organized by the local group 1Charleston to help address the lingering problems raised by King and Malcolm X. The group held its first conference in 2014, but after racially charged tragedy struck the Charleston area twice in 2015 — first with the police shooting of Walter Scott and then with the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church — organizers set about organizing with a new sense of urgency.

“In certain circles, race in the church just isn’t talked about,” said Philip Pinckney, a pastoral intern at Sovereign Grace Church of the Lowcountry and organizer of 1Charleston. He said that after seeing beautiful symbolic gestures of racial unity in Charleston following the Emanuel AME shooting, his church wanted to keep working on substantive changes.

Loritts, a pastor at New York’s Trinity Grace Church and president of the Kainos Movement for multi-ethnic churches, brought some hard words to a local church body that in many cases remains segregated by default. He noted the irony of walking through CSU’s Strom Thurmond Center, named after a prominent segregationist, en route to talk about racial unity, and he called into question the salvation of Christians who “were sexually chaste yet hated people who did not look like them.”

“We are not giving you license to subscribe to a colorblind ethic. God made me black. God made you white,” Loritts said, addressing a diverse crowd of about 200 attendees that skewed mostly white. “I am a Christian before I am black, and yet being Christian does not mean that I abandon my blackness.”

The church’s racial schism in America is long standing and entrenched. A 2014 LifeWay Research survey found that 86 percent of Protestant congregations consisted of one predominant racial group,

A 2015 LifeWay study showed that many congregants were not bothered by that fact. In a survey of nearly 1,000 churchgoers, just four in 10 agreed with the statement, “My church needs to become more ethnically diverse.”

In the survey, about half of African Americans and Hispanics said their churches needed to become more diverse, compared to just 37 percent of whites. Meanwhile, Southerners (43 percent) were more likely than Northeasterners (33 percent) to call for more diversity in their churches.

Other studies have found some beacons of racial progress: Duke University’s National Congregations Study has recently shown an uptick in Hispanic leaders in the Catholic Church, and the Association of Religion Data Archives noted in 2010 that black churchgoers were making inroads at majority-white megachurches, although whites remained largely unwilling to attend majority-black churches.

Craig Tuck, pastor at Charleston’s Centerpoint Church, said he is keenly aware of the fact that his young, majority-white congregation meets in the auditorium of majority-black Burke High School. Speaking at the 1Charleston conference, Tuck said it was a challenge from Loritts that helped set him on a path toward racial reconciliation: “Change your dinner table.”

A Mount Pleasant resident, Tuck began spending more time with black neighbors from the nearby Snowden community, inviting them over for dinner.

His church eventually got involved in helping a family from the neighborhood recover from water damage to their house. As the conference attendees prepared to break bread together — from Chick-fil-A and donated by several local franchises — he issued a simple challenge: “Eat with someone you don’t know, someone who’s not like you.”

“Sometimes I think fear can perpetuate ignorance, but the Bible says perfect love casts out fear,” Tuck said.

Since accepting Loritts’ challenge, Tuck and his congregation have started a partnership with St. John’s Chapel, an East Side church with little in common except the Christian Gospel. Centerpoint is Baptist; St. John’s is Episcopal. Centerpoint is majority white; St. John’s is majority black.

Members of Centerpoint now attend weekly prayer services at St. John’s, and the two congregations work together in a homeless outreach ministry twice a month. In the long run, Tuck said his church has a goal of hiring a black staff member, a key to making African Americans feel welcome, according to some leading thinkers on the topic.

Tuck admitted he was new to the idea of racial reconciliation in the church, but he at least knew the starting point: “It’s about the people that walk beside you.” He spoke briefly at the conference and said he planned to listen carefully.

“We are in the front row taking notes,” Tuck said.

Speakers at the conference peppered their talks with Biblical references to a multi-racial Kingdom of Heaven. “After this I looked,” writes John in the book of Revelation, “and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Loritts spoke of the Apostle Paul’s specific mission to reach both Jews and Gentiles, contrasting his missionary efforts with a modern church-planting movement that might be more likely to create separate congregations in white and black parts of town.

In the wake of racial violence, Loritts said the local church should play an essential role in reconciliation by bringing disparate groups together. Speaking hypothetically, he asked how things might have gone differently if former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson had gone to church with Michael Brown.

“Proximity breeds trust,” Loritts said. “Distance breeds suspicion.”

Pastor Mike Seever, of Sovereign Grace Church of the Lowcountry, said at the conference that he had no idea where the conversation would lead when he and some friends started talking about diversity over pizza in his living room several years ago. That talk ultimately led to the creation of 1Charleston. The group is meant to address “a void of actually talking about these issues” in evangelical churches, he said.

“This is not just a suggestion,” Seever said. “This is an obligation. This is a mandate of the Gospel.”

Dana McGhee, a member of The Net International Ministries in Summerville, said his church was founded with a mission of being multi-ethnic, but so far it remains majority-black.

The church draws its name from Christ’s saying that he would make his followers “fishers of men.”

While diversity remains a goal for his church, McGhee said the congregation has much work to do.

On a recent Sunday, he said, the pastor announced they would be attending a worship service at another church on James Island. The whole congregation traveled in a caravan down the Interstate, leading to what McGhee said was “the best Sunday we had in a long time.”

McGhee left the conference with a challenge in mind, one he’ll take back to his church and back to Summerville:

“Do we want to change?”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.