Ethnically Segregated Worship

A Colored Church, A White Church and A Korean Church Later

I grew up a black girl in a colored neighborhood in the suburbs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. What we call “coloreds” in Zimbabwe are individuals of interracial parentage, most often a mix of black African and European-descended white parents. Failing to find acceptance from either of their parents’ cultures, coloreds developed a culture of their own. I attended a colored church that slowly turned black as the coloreds decided to start a separate colored church conference—a decision wholly unsupported by the world church. They argued it was to facilitate ministry to coloreds.

It was not the politics, economic ramifications, or theological incongruity of the separation that struck me, a child just entering her teens. Rather, it was the loss of my piano teacher, who after only two lessons stopped coming to my church. She had played the organ and had agreed to teach me piano at no charge. Then she stopped showing up at church, the organ went silent, and my lessons ceased. As family after family disappeared from church, a pattern began to develop in my young mind: It was all the coloreds who were leaving.

I increased the racial diversity factor of my next home church, which I began attending when I arrived in Canada, by one hundred percent. I also considerably brought down the church’s average age. In a short period of time I was up front, leading out song services just as I had done back home in Zimbabwe. There was not a moment in my two years at that church when I felt singled out or excluded because I was black. To be certain, there were some individuals who made their first black friend in me, but that was consequent to their upbringing, just as the composition of the church was consequent to its predominantly Caucasian community.

Four years after leaving Zimbabwe, I finally requested a membership transfer to my new church in Boston, where I was now attending college. I remember receiving emails from church friends back home after the membership transfer was announced. A Korean church? Really? One friend even asked me if there were not any black churches in the area.

I never thought it odd that I attended a Korean church. I loved that church from the very first day I worshipped there. The church service was run entirely by young people and there was a generous potluck afterwards. We spent the afternoon in acts of service, closed the Sabbath together with a Bible study, and went out to dinner to hang out after sunset. It felt just like home!

While the youth church was conducted in English, the adults held a separate service in Korean. Aside from the respectful bows and enthusiastic smiles I exchanged with them, I could hardly communicate with some of the adults when we came together after the services for potluck. My limited ability to communicate with them spurred my desire to learn the Korean language and I acquired some essential phrases like “I’m hungry” and “thank you.”

I suppose separate services sidestepped communication problems, but as the youth, we were constantly discussing ways to collaborate with and learn more from the adults even if there was a language barrier. One solution was to hold a joint service once a month. The joint service was usually conducted in Korean and a friend would have to translate for me. But I do not think I was any less blessed on those Sabbaths because of the translation.

I believe that Korean-American churches were formed to facilitate the communication of the gospel to Korean immigrants not proficient in the English language. More easily communicating the gospel, I assume, was the original purpose of most ethnic churches. Outside the boundaries of the church, though, the immigrant to America will have to communicate in English. What better place to learn English than in a welcoming, loving, multi-cultural church?

The formation of linguistically-based ethnic churches suggests that language barriers are significantly impeding the gospel ministry. The answer might not lie in ethnic homogeny but rather an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal proportions.

At one point in my time in Boston, a friend told me with much enthusiasm, and perhaps with the hopes of recruiting my membership, that an African church was starting up in the area. My inquiries into the motivation for starting this new group revealed that it was not evangelistic, pragmatic geographical reasons, nor was it a desire to avoid a language barrier. The Africans attending a predominantly Caucasian church did not feel the fellowship warm enough for them, so they had determined to open their own church and make the fellowship what they wanted it to be.

I could not fault individuals for desiring warmer fellowship, but surely, if they as members of the church felt it was cold, how did guests feel?! Would it not have been better that the members make their then-current church warmer rather than opening a new one? Ethnically segregated churches would make more sense if church were but a social club where the propagation of a particular culture is the common interest. But church is about the gospel, not any individual’s culture!

So ethnic churches formed to meet the need language barriers create, while yet questionable in my mind, make some sense. What makes absolutely no sense to me, though, is that two churches, less than ten miles apart, could belong to two separate conferences—conferences divided primarily along racial lines. Recollecting the church’s unsupportive response to the proposed rift between black and colored conferences in Zimbabwe, it seemed strange to me that America, of all places, should have conferences separated by race—not in this day and age!

Unlike that of my church in Canada, the composition of one black church I frequented in Boston was not geographically influenced. On the contrary, this black church was in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood. I asked a visiting conference official one Sabbath why racially segregated conferences still exist in North America, and he intimated that it was to avoid the need to enlist affirmative action in creating employment opportunities for black pastors. His response would justify racially segregated conferences if the church was merely a corporation and separate conferences were one way of creating employment opportunities for historically underrepresented minorities. But the church is not a mere corporation.

A colored church turned black, a white church, and a Korean church later, I believe that we lose much when we segregate our weekly worship experiences by race or ethnicity. There are lessons to be learned from each people group just as much as the youth would do well to learn from their elders. The stereotypical tardiness of Africans would well be tempered by the punctuality of Europeans, and in turn, the African idea of community might warm an otherwise nippy congregation, for instance.

If we could shift our focus from striving for ethnic homogeny or racial hegemony to proclaiming the gospel of Christ and the Three Angels’ Messages, our unique commission might sooner be accomplished. We may even enjoy doing it more in the process.

*article submitted to the Think Tank, April, 2010

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