Hoping to sound a national alarm, United Church of Christ leaders plan to launch a campaign against racism next week when they release a pastoral letter that challenges worshipers to confront racial prejudice in society and in themselves.
The pastoral letter, a teaching document that sets church policy, will be read aloud by ministers in more than 6,000 churches next Sunday, the day before the Jan. 21 federal holiday that marks Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
"As Christians, affirming our oneness in Christ, let us be fervent in our prayers and in our commitment to reconcile the false divisions which the forces of racism have nurtured among us," the 40-page pastoral says.
The United Church of Christ statement on racism comes amid growing concern that relations among the races are getting worse, not better. In a recent national survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, a majority of whites said they believe blacks and Hispanics are likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent and less patriotic.
"There is a gross national denial that racism is a problem," said the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, who helped draft the two-year effort.
The pastoral, signed by top church officials, notes that thousands of new cases of racially motivated violence against minorities have been reported in the last two years. And the letter suggests that persistent racism is to blame for racial disparity in a wide array of areas, including employment, health, housing and education.
"As a result of racial discrimination, all over the United States there are 'quiet riots' in the form of unemployment, poverty, social disorganization," states the church's Pastoral Letter on Contemporary Racism and the Role of the Church.
"We emphatically reject the notion that racism, particularly in the form of institutionalized discrimination, is a problem that no longer requires our utmost attention," the letter says.
Officials of the predominantly white denomination, which has 1.7 million members, said they are the first major U.S. religious body to issue such a pastoral letter on racism. But other denominations have passed resolutions against racism in various forms.
Most notably, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on racism, titled "Brothers and Sisters to Us" in 1979. And the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a formal message to the church on racism about five years ago.
"I applaud the United Church of Christ for taking a stand and I hope all the other denominations will respond," said Joseph E. Agne, a United Methodist minister who is co-chairman of the National Council of Churches' Racial Justice Working Group. "The deep tissue of our national body is deeply wounded."
Chavis, a minister with the United Church of Christ, said the pastoral is timely because the Bush administration appears to have a lack of commitment to racial justice. He cited the president's veto of the civil rights bill last fall, federal efforts to restrict race-based scholarships and growing opposition to affirmative action programs.
"We're living in an era now that I call the federalization of racism," Chavis said.
The pastoral calls on church members to become politically active on behalf of public policies that will result in greater justice and equality, and to create local church programs to heighten awareness about racism and cultural diversity.
The pastoral urges worshipers to "examine prayerfully, in light of our faith, our own attitudes and assumptions about race; and to acknowledge the ways in which many of us have benefitted, and continue to benefit, from the racial exclusion and exploitation of others in our political and economic system."
The statement on racism is the third pastoral issued in 30 years by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that stems from a tradition of New England congregationalism.
There are more than 40 churches in the Washington region.