Not long ago, I visited Topeka, Kan., to teach at one of those grand old mainline churches that got caught in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.
It was around the corner from the modest home of a railroad worker named Oliver Brown who decided his daughter Linda shouldn’t have to attend an elementary school far from home just because the neighborhood school was for whites only.
The Supreme Court agreed and, in 1954, struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had allowed segregation in public schools. That decision set in motion the mass exodus of whites from urban neighborhoods.
So-called “white flight” suburbs sprang up just outside the borders of newly integrated school districts. New schools went up to attract white families, as did housing developments promising a better way of life, code for “whites-only.”
Some mainline congregations followed their white constituents out to the suburbs. Others stayed in beloved Gothic piles and, like the one I was visiting, tried to retain a former way of life while surrounded by new neighbors who didn’t identify with grand old hymns, starchy Sunday rituals and an attitude of charity, not welcome.
Churches that once served several thousand every Sunday dwindled to a few dozen stalwarts who, still decades later, expected people like themselves to discover their better way of being church.
Meanwhile, church leaders wonder why “millennials are leaving the church” and what magical mixture of doctrine and Sunday worship would draw them back. Reality is that congregations can’t “lose” younger cohorts they never had. It has been 50 years since a young-adult generation found urban mainline congregations appealing.
It’s the reality no one wants to address, because at the heart of it is the fact of race. Urban mainline churches “hollowed out” when their white constituents relocated to suburbs and those who remained couldn’t bring themselves to connect with new, darker-skinned neighbors, except possibly as objects of pity and “mission.” They developed a fortress, almost colonial mentality.
Meanwhile, newer suburban congregations arose that offered a more modern approach but remained predominantly white.
How can a 60-year-old Supreme Court decision still be shaping religious life in America? It’s because race still divides us, determining where white parents send their children to school and where housing values are considered stable enough to invest.
Urban schools continue to be racially imbalanced. Neighborhoods show a high degree of racial uniformity. When I drove through Topeka, a public radio show was debating when — when, not whether — Brown v. Board of Education would be overturned and white people could return to their city.
I worked with a downtown church in Indiana, where they had tried to make peace with racial diversity but now were truly excited because “gentrification” had reached their area and prosperous whites were moving back in. Now they had a future.
This appraisal might seem unfair to the many congregations that did adapt to racial diversity and, by now, have lost their attitude of noblesse oblige. But they aren’t the norm, I’m sorry to say.
Meanwhile, black congregations have thrived and new congregations have emerged outside mainline boundaries that embrace African-Americans as treasured friends, not charity cases, and serve Hispanic immigrants with Spanish-language worship and traditions such as Las Posadas, remembering the Holy Family’s search for welcome.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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