When working with a congregation in the Jackson, Mississippi area, we enjoyed the challenges of helping integrate a previously race-specific group. Not unusual for Mississippi in the mid 1980s, the congregation had never had any Black members. But as the surrounding suburbs integrated, the Skyway Hills Church of Christ soon began welcoming Black visitors. "Can we place membership?" we were eventually asked by a delightful Christian family who happened to be Black.
"Of course" was the answer, and away we went. On the plus side, the father and husband of the family soon became one of our deacons as his wife taught Bible classes and thier two daughters charmed everyone. On the minus side, another deacon's wife frankly told me (why they tell the preacher, I'll never know), "It's o.k. for them to worship here, but don't expect me to have them in my home." These two responses represent the two extremes of either complete racial integration or continuing prejudice and segregation.
Where is the Liberty Church of Christ? Two statements are equally true: (i) "Times have changed," and (ii) "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Times Have Changed
Supreme Court cases such as Brown v Board of Education in 1954, and landmark legislation such as Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, began America's improvements in racial equality . Although actual equality lagged behind legal equality, and although the greater impact of the Civil Rights Movement was not realized until years later, a social tipping point was successfully passed.
Describing the personal impact of passing the tipping point, a former activist from Mississippi (Mississippi was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movements) said,
Blacks began to feel like they were worthy and their self-esteem just went up sky high. They really felt that they could be beneficial to society. Conventional wisdom would say that...the civil rights workers [who] were murdered would probably be amazed if they came to our town [today] and would be pleased.
Following these improvements, the Churches of Christ have also led in them. Although many American religious groups divided along lines of racial tension in the period of the Civil War, our brethren did not. This is not to deny that "There have always been white congregations and black congregations, with little exchange between the two," but our brethren never institutionalized racial segregation. Our churches have typically been like the one I served in Mississippi and have slowly overcome individual prejudice in the move toward integration. That is where we are at the Liberty Church of Christ, but have we gone far enough?
...The More They Stay The Same
Recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and on college campuses recall past racial tensions. Renewed tensions require Christians to remember that "there is neither Jew or Greek....barbarian [or] Scythian" (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). Eliminating ethnic differences present in the New Testament world, these words also eliminate racial divides today. Simply stated: "He made from one man (some versions say "one blood") every nation of mankind" (Acts 17:26). In these words, "Paul deduces the unity of the human race, all created by God, all sprung from one ancestor."
Biological brotherhood in Adam is multiplied by spiritual brotherhood in Christ. This is Paul's point as he says, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). Even if the world is returning to a tense and violent past, all those who have been baptized into Christ should continue toward a more harmonious future.
Imperfect, the Liberty Church of Christ is not doing badly. On any given Sunday, at least 20% of those in attendance are non-White. Chances are good that we will either be led in singing, in prayer, or in the Lord's Supper by someone of color. These numbers closely mirror percentages in Liberty County. There is no back seat to our bus.
Beyond the percentages, we own a great deal more to our non-white members. We owe them an open question about how we are doing. We owe each other a commitment to continuous improvement toward the best possible answer.