It was a lesson I learned in sixth grade—that little old ladies have their favorite spots in the church pews and that I’d better not dare to sit there on Sunday mornings. My family was new to town, and I’d made a friend who invited me to church. My parents didn’t go to church, and his parents went every Sunday. I don’t remember where we sat or whether we sat with his parents. But I do remember that he steered me past a wiry grandmother with shiny gray hair, sprayed into place, who glared when I paused at her pew.
This particular church was United Methodist, but over the years of my teens and young adulthood, I found the same thing again and again as I visited a host of denominations in search of a faith community—the First Church of God, a nondenominational mega-church, the Episcopal Church, a Friends congregation, and even the denomination I eventually settled on as the best fit—the Presbyterian Church (USA). People have their favorite seats, both literally and metaphorically, and they don’t like change.
Every place of worship I’ve visited, both Christian and otherwise, seems to have those little old grandmothers—pillars of the congregation who bristle when anyone challenges “the way things have always been done.” It’s not always grandmothers, of course. Sometimes it’s grandfathers, and sometimes it’s younger people who’ve grown up in the congregation and cling to what’s familiar.
I’ve never particularly felt any need to challenge them. Until recently. I was talking with a friend of mine, who is African-American, about how the majority of churches are still the most segregated institutions in America. Both of us attend churches that are somewhat more diverse than most, and she shared with me a story of her first visit to a church where she’s been a long-time member. She sat down and browsed the bulletin, preparing herself for worship, when a founding member of the church approached the pew and glared at her. “That’s my seat,” she said, and stood stonily until my friend got up and moved to another spot.
Thinking of all those elderly women in the white churches I’d attended, I asked, “Did she ask white people to move if they sat in her spot?”
My friend tilted her head in thought and said, “I don’t know.”
“I’m surprised you ever went back,” I said. “I probably wouldn’t have.” And I realized in that moment that I had never once had to wonder whether race played a part in such experiences, while, from her perspective, race was the defining factor in that moment.
She told me that she enjoyed the service enough to give the church another chance, and she found enough to like about it to stay and become a member. But she has never forgotten that moment or that woman who made her feel unwelcome.
As churches begin to grapple with the way race plays a part in communities of faith, we must remember that compassion and love must always come before tradition. And we must challenge both ourselves and those founding members who would, either knowingly or unconsciously, stand in the way of human compassion and positive change.
Today’s Washington Post featured a column by Courtland Milloy about a group of church leaders who gathered to discuss how to move forward in healing the wounds caused by the white church’s part in perpetuating racism. They met in the Washington National Cathedral, a church that recently decided to remove a stained glass window featuring a Confederate flag. Jim Wallis, a long-time advocate for social justice, observed during the meeting, “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less reason to fear for their children. That’s a fact.”
My own church, First Presbyterian of Howard County, has begun a series of conversations on race, led by members of the congregation who are interested in finding a way forward. These discussions began with sharing our own stories and experiences and have resulted in a Sunday morning book study.
For positive change to occur, such efforts can’t stop with the pastors or small groups of interested members. Whenever pastors focus on political issues, they inevitably make some in the pews uncomfortable. And, sadly, this sometimes leads to the removal of the pastor.
Pastors, like people in every other profession—and perhaps more than some—have to be careful what they say if they want to keep their jobs. And therein lies the problem. Ministers of the Gospel are called to speak truth to power—even when that power comes in the form of longtime church members. But like all of us, they need job security that will allow them to put food on the tables for their families.
Not everyone feels comfortable with overt and unflinching discussions of race and privilege, of course. But neither can we contribute to an atmosphere where our leaders can only deliver bland messages from the pulpit that allow us to remain disengaged. The Church cannot keep sitting in the same comfortable place when the world is so in need of change.
I am fast approaching the age where I could be one of those gray-haired grandmothers who just wants peace in her life. I fight against it by having a good stylist keep my hair the color it was when I was in high school. But I can’t just settle for surface appearances. I really like that spot near the back of the church where I can slip out the side door instead of shaking the pastors’ hands on Sunday morning if I want. I like our church’s traditions. And that, too, I have to fight against.
Perhaps I’ll sit in a different spot next week. Remembering that sixth grader I was so long ago, I must remind myself that the children are watching. Each of us must ask, What are we teaching them?
If every person of faith asked that question, not just in our houses of worship but in the world, what could we not do together? For Christians, in particular, we are charged to believe the words Jesus spoke in the face of such obstacles. “For truly I tell you,” he said, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17: 20-21, NRSV)
It is surely time for people of faith to live up to our heritage and to command the mountain of racism, “Move!”