Fellow Mainline Christians: Are We Completely Useless? 

I’m of the mind that the appropriate role for white people in racial justice work is usually supportive: we ask how we can help, we do what we’re asked, and if there are any microphones, we pass them along to someone else who experiences racism directly.

But this is a story that might actually call for a white-person rant. I’m not sure. All I know is that when I read it, I said, “Oh, I recognize this. These are my people. These are my people at our very worst.”

askbadgeI am speaking of this study in which sociologists sent emails to more than 3,000 churches across the country. The emails purported to be from someone who was relocating to the area and was interested in visiting. The only difference between emails had to do with clues to the (fictitious) sender’s racial identity. From census data and focus groups, the study’s authors came up with these pseudonyms: Greg Murphy, Scott Taylor, Jamaal Washington, Tyrone Jefferson, Carlos Garcia, Jose Hernandez, Wen Lang Li, and Jong Soo Kim.

Evangelical and Catholic churches pretty much responded to all of the emails they got. For every 100 evangelical churches that responded to a white-sounding name, 97 responded to black-sounding names, 100 to Latina/o, and 94 to Asian. The difference was not statistically significant. Catholic churches had similar results.

But what about the mainline Protestants?

Yeah, about that.

For every 100 churches that responded to white-sounding names, only 89 responded to black names. 86 responded to Latina/o names. And an abysmal 72 responded to Asian names.

Also, mainliners’ replies to non-white-sounding names tended to be terser and less inviting than our replies to white-sounding names.

My people, listen. There is no sense in which this is okay. There are no mitigating circumstances – no good intentions, no didn’t-mean-anything-by-its, not oh-but-you-have-to-understands, no not-MY-congregations – that make this okay. It is awful that we do this. Like, sackcloth-and-ashes awful. We should be rending our garments (no postmodern winking irony here) and quaking with fear that God will strike us down for our wickedness.

“But maybe they didn’t mean anything by it…” [holds up hand] No. Brzzt. Let me stop you right there. Sure, of the people who never sent the emails they should have sent, probably not all were thinking, “Ooh, a target of my white supremacist ire! I think I’ll not reply. That’ll teach ‘em. Now hand me my white pointy hat; I’ve got an appointment.” Some of them, maybe, were thinking that. But I know us. I imagine a lot of them – of us – might have thought things like:

“Huh? I don’t get it. Weird.”

“They must have us confused with another church.”

“I don’t think they’d be happy here. Egads. I’ll do them a favor and not reply.”

“Oh, I should put them in touch with that one pastor of color whose name I know.”

“If they come here we might have to have conversations about race. Conversations about race are uncomfortable.I come to church to get a break from all that and feel like a good person. Uhh, what I mean is, I come to church to ‘have my Sabbath.’ Because Sabbath is a nice religious word, and I’m pretty sure it means the same thing as being fatuously self-indulgent, right? Let’s go with yes.”

“Oh, that’s precious. Wait’ll I tell the choir. [Delete]”

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what the intentions were. Sure, if it were one email and one church, you might ask whether it was an accident. If it turned out that the church, like, didn’t have internet access for the duration of the study because the whole town was overrun by zombies, and they couldn’t get word out because there was a quarantine, OK, fine.

But this is a statistically significant pattern. This is something we mainliners tend, as a group, to do. “This” being “act in a white supremacist way.” Yes, white supremacist. That phrase accurately describes the actions of a group that treats emails from white-sounding names as worthier of attention than emails from black, Latina/o, or Asian sounding names.

I mean, my God. If we don’t care about doing better than this, exactly what use are we to anyone? If this is what we offer to people who aren’t in our group, we deserve every bit of our decline, and I hope it goes quickly so that our resources can be transferred to people who will make better use of them than we have.

Has it escaped our collective notice how overwhelmingly white we are? That our Christian denominations are overwhelmingly white while meanwhile our country is becoming less Christian and Christianity is becoming less white? Do we not understand that a person of color who comes to a mainline church probably has other good options that will not require them to risk microaggressions from unfamiliar white people?

We need to do better, and we need to make doing better a big priority: bigger than the denomination’s upcoming convention, bigger than the youth group’s mission trip, bigger than wooing millennial hipsters. Frankly, we needed to have made it a big priority a long time ago.

As it happens, we have an upcoming opportunity for some soul-searching, made possible thanks to the work of Christians of color. The African Methodist Episcopal church – a denomination that exists because white-dominated Methodist churches were so racist – has asked religious leaders to make Sunday, Sept. 6, a “Day of Confession, Repentance, Prayer, and Commitment to end Racism.

We have our instructions. We’ve been asked to do something by a predominantly Black denomination, and it’s something we need to be doing anyway. Are we going to do it, even though it’s not as soothing and feel-good as whatever else we probably had planned for that day?

And are we going to commit to it, as we’ve been asked, in ways that extend beyond Sept. 6? Or are we going to fail to respond, again and again?