There is a long history of racial tension in Churches of Christ. And today perhaps more than ever, the black Churches of Christ and white Churches of Christ are separated in a way that seems intractable. Consider this an exercise in listening, first to a prominent voice from the past, and finally a great conversation from someone who is on the forefront of this conversation in our tribe.
Listen. Mourn. Repent.
Listen. Open your hearts and your tables.
We've got a lot of work to do, and we have to do it together.
First we need to listen to a voice from the past.
Foy E. Wallace Jr. was a prominent voice in the vast majority of our movement spanning from his editorship at the Gospel Advocate in 1909 to just before his death in 1975.
One of the more polarizing figures in our movement he commanded both deep respect and deep criticism. Few were able to withstand his opposition and his influence on both the white Churches of Christ and the relationship of the white and black Churches of Christ can still be felt today. This article, written by Wallace in 1941 embodies his position well.
NEGRO MEETINGS FOR WHITE PEOPLE
Foy E. Wallace Jr., Bible Banner (March 1941): 7.
"The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.
"Reliable brethren in the Valley have reported the definite inclinations of the negro man and his wife in charge of the orphan home for colored children at Combes toward social equality. They are supposed to be members of the church, and some of the white brethren are apparently encouraging them. It is said that these two negroes have privately stated that they favor social equality and are working for it. The young editor of Christian Soldier, in the valley, admits that he roomed with the negro preacher, R. N. Hogan, and slept in the same bed with him two nights!And he seemed to be proud of it! Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known.
"It has gained considerable currency that the colored preacher Hogan has been too much inclined to mix with the white people and to favor, in attitude, a social equality. Hogan should have had too much sense, if not self-respect, to have permitted the young white preacher to sleep with him, if the young preacher did not have that much sense or self-respect. But Hogan has been under the sponsorship of Jimmie Lovell and cannot be expected to have any too much sense about anything. I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.
"When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!
"In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.
"I saw a letter the other day from the colored preacher, R. N. Hogan, to a certain white brother stating that there were very few negroes in the section where he was preaching at the time, and that he was holding the meeting for the white brethren!
"When negro meetings are held in most of the places now, the white brethren over-run the premises. They herald these negro preachers as the greatest preachers in the world, when as a matter of fact if any of the white preachers should say everything they say to a word, it would sound so common that the brethren would stop it. But when a negro says it, in negro manner, the brethren paw up the ground over it.
"I was preaching in a certain city where Marshall Keeble had held a successful meeting. In usual style he had poured it on the negroes and it had run on the white people. One brother who was against hard preaching went wild over Keeble's hard preaching. Keeble preached it hard, calling names and giving the sectarians Hail Columbia! [T]his brother thought it was the greatest stuff he had ever heard. Later, when I was preaching in the same city, he squirmed until he polished the seat of a good pair of trousers because I drew the line on denominationalism. One night while he was squirming, I diverted attention by referring to one of Keeble's hard sayings. Immediately this brother sat erect, smiled and nodded in approval of Keeble's hard saying. I smiled back at him and said: Get yourself a negro preacher!
"I am very much in favor of negro meetings for the negroes, but I am just as much opposed to negro meetings for white people, and I am against white brethren taking the meetings away from the negroes and the general mixing that has become entirely too much of a practice in these negro meetings. Such a thing not only lowers the church in the eyes of the world but it is definitely against the interest of the negroes. If any negro preacher says that this is not true, that will be the evidence that it is true, and that he has been spoiled by the white brethren and wants to preach to white audiences. And if any of the white brethren get worked up over what I have said, and want to accuse me of being jealous of the negro preachers, I will just tell them now that I don't even want to hold a meeting for any bunch of brethren who think that any negro is a better preacher than I am! So that we can just call that argument off before it starts--and the meeting, too."
-- F. E. W.
Now for an alternative voice...
Don McLaughlin serves as the Senior Minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ and is a leader in helping our tribe to talk about the realities of our culture and our tradition and the way that it impedes our ability to be reconciled across racial boundaries.
He recently had a fascinating conversation with Luke Norsworthy about Ferguson, white privilege, and ways in which we need to learn both the practice of hospitality and the ability to ask the response, "Tell me more."
Listen to the podcast here:
UPDATE: Justin Ardrey submitted the following video involving Don McLaughlin, Jerry Taylor, Josh Ross, and Eric Wilson. This is a great introduction to the conversation. Watch and engage.
Also be sure to look at the new book Shattering the Illusion: How African American Churches of Christ Moved from Segregation to Independence by Wes Crawford. Read a helpful review over at the Christian Chronicle.