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Tearing Down Walls
When I was two years old, my family moved to a new town in New Jersey. My parents opened up the Yellow Pages in search of a church to attend and decided on the Baptist church. I imagine they dressed me in my Sunday best, including patent-leather shoes and white tights or ankle socks, backed the car out of the driveway, and bravely made their way to the church with the white steeple.
When my parents found themselves at the back of the sanctuary, with the center aisle stretching out before them, they noticed something that gave them pause. Everyone in the church was white. The organist. The choir members. The ushers. The people in the pews on either side of the aisle. Not a brown face in sight. All white. Except for my father, my mother, and me.
I’m told my parents quickly decided this church was not the place for them. Who could blame them, really? It was a Sunday sandwiched between Bloody Sunday and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not exactly easy times between the races.
Hoping they could make an exit without being noticed, my parents started to head for the door. That’s when they noticed my small, unknowing, two-year-old self, halfway down the aisle in the middle of that sanctuary. What was a parent to do?
We stayed. For years.
Eventually, I noticed there were black churches and there were white churches. During the week, I went to school with children from different races and cultures, but on Sunday mornings, members of each group drove themselves to churches where everyone looked like them. When I visited my grandparents in Virginia, we went to churches where everyone looked like me. As a child, I began to wonder to myself, “Of all the places in America, you’d think the church could figure out how to get the colors and cultures together.” I’m still wondering about that.
I wouldn’t trade the experience of growing up in that church as part of the only black family in a congregation of white people. It significantly impacted my view of the church in America and the neat lines we draw around ourselves. The Bible says the world will know we are Christians by our love for one another. I wonder how well the world would say we’re doing when — for the most part — we still haven’t figured out how to worship together?
Life is definitely easier when I’m hanging out with people who think like me, look like me, smell like me, speak like me, worship like me. If I’m being honest, I’d rather not have to navigate differences when it comes to my worship experience. I navigate differences all week long. When it comes to church, I want to clap my hands to the music. I want to say, “Amen!” out loud, without having anyone turn around to see where that came from. I don’t want to be rushed from one moment to the next without a chance to savor the sweetness of the moment I’m in.
I know, however, that’s not for everyone. I know some prefer to experience God in the silence, or in the soaring voices singing an anthem, or in the comfort of the litany. I also know that all of it glorifies and pleases God. I’m the one who judges the style of worship, the preacher’s delivery, a worshipper’s outfit, and labels them pleasing—or not. And honestly, isn’t that all about me and not at all about God?
It’s true, there are churches that twist the gospel and manipulate the truth to the harm of those who gather there. When that happens, not even God is pleased. When a church becomes dangerous, it’s best to gather your belongings and make a hasty exit.
But what if there is something to be gained by walking down the aisle, sitting in the pew, and staying long enough to learn from one another? All of us worshipping together, even with our different ways of clapping or singing or talking or praying. All of our colors and cultures and languages and music combined in a beautiful mosaic.
Do you think it matters? Do you think Jesus really came to tear down the walls we use to divide ourselves?
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