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Segregation still exists within church walls

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
March 2, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 2, 2012 at 9:03 p.m.

Attendees of Greater Mt. Calvary Baptist Church worship during a Sunday morning service. The Rev. Montari Morrison, of Greater Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a mostly African-American church in Victoria, said he would prefer to see churches, in general, become more diverse.

Hattie Marshall never thought she'd attend a predominantly Caucasian house of worship.

Raised in the African-American church - attending churches with minimal, if any, racial diversity - the 59-year-old Victoria resident said the black church was all she knew until about four years ago.

That's when she felt God leading her to become a member of Northside Baptist Church in Victoria - a mostly white church.

"I went to the Christmas Pageant at Northside one year, and someone told me about a Rick Warren study there," Marshall said. "My intention was to go for six weeks and go back to Mt. Nebo."

For several weeks, Marshall attended Northside's 9:30 a.m. class, then drove across town for Mt. Nebo's 11 a.m. worship service.

But when the Bible study concluded at Northside, Marshall said she felt God was permanently leading her away from Mt. Nebo - where she served as choir and youth director - and leading her to focus her talents and attention in a new, mostly white church body.

"God just started speaking to me, and I knew that he just wanted me to come over here," she said. "I would ask him, 'Are you sure?' Because I was in the black culture all my life, but he would answer me, 'Do you not know that I know what's best for you?'"

Marshall's experience of worshiping among a congregation that shares her race is common. Churches across the United States remain predominantly segregated more than 40 years after the abolishment of racial segregation laws.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research's Multiracial Congregations Project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, report racially integrated congregations are rare, making up fewer than 10 percent of churches.

The study notes that Catholic churches are three times more likely to be multi-ethnic than Protestant churches.

"For congregations to be multiracial, a racially diverse neighborhood is usually necessary, but often not sufficient," the study states. "A tension seems to exist between in the minds of both the leadership and the members as to why they are racially mixed. For some, the diversity is simply due to the neighborhood. For others, the diversity required other forces, such as God and intentionality."

The Rev. Montari Morrison, of Greater Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a mostly African-American church in Victoria, said he would prefer to see churches, in general, become more diverse.

"I think it's a comfort level that many of us aren't willing to break away from," Morrison said. "People tend to go to churches where we look the same, think the same, and talk the same."

Morrison said the Civil Rights movement, and desegregation forced people to integrate. But he believes places of worship simply haven't caught up with everything else.

"Historically in the African- American church, it has been the only place where we can congregate and have control over who's leading, and what's spoken," Morrison said. "The African-American church has been that one place where we've had true freedom."

But with the increase in interracial marriage in the United States, and a more progressive attitude of race relations with every new generation, Morrison said, he is hopeful churches will begin to integrate more.

"I do believe it will get better because the younger generation, my generation, didn't grow up with Jim Crow laws. It's going to happen more with younger generations," Morrison said. "It's definitely my hope to become more diverse. I don't read anywhere in scripture where Jesus died for one group. He died for the whole world. So, it's up to me to lead my congregation there."

John Woods, music minister at Northside Baptist Church, said he, too, hopes his church will begin to racially integrate more.

"We are a mostly a white church. We're not as colorful as we'd like to be, to be honest," Woods said. "At Northside, we would say that we lament that more people from different cultures are not able to come together to worship for whatever reason. So we try to be intentional about intermingling."

Woods said the church regularly attempts to sing and worship in ways that recognize culture groups around the world to remind the congregation that Christianity transcends race, economics, and geography.

"Jesus Christ was intentional about diversity, and we try to do that as well. It's a fine line to walk though, because we don't want it to appear as tokenism," Woods said. "But our desire is to match heaven. And because heaven will be a colorful place, that's what we want Northside to look like."

In the time Marshall has attended Northside, she and her husband, Victor Marshall, have found many ways to contribute to their church family. Marshall even joined the Northside choir.

"We praise different at the black church. At Northside, sometimes I'm the only one saying 'Amen, hallelujah.' But look, I'm a loud Christian. I'm going to say 'Hallelujah' and stand up until I get tired," Marshall said. "When I got there, I was the only one clapping. There's more now. I think all the time, 'I don't know if the Lord moved me here for you guys, or for me, but I can tell you the church is praising more, and they're hand clapping more.'"

Marshall said she's settled into her new church home well, and doesn't anticipate leaving anytime soon. She's also seen the church diversify since she and her husband started attending.

"Since being there, I've noticed more African-Americans are joining," she said. "I will always miss my culture church, but I'm happy where I am because this is where God has placed me. And wherever he leads me, I'll go."

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