It was the Fall of ‘93, deep in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I was a high school student in Junction City, Arkansas. An evangelist had come to our church and encouraged us to invite as many students as possible to come hear the gospel. Although I suspected that it might cause trouble, I invited the entire football team. We arrived at the church only to be met by a couple of deacons banning the African American students from entering the sanctuary. Soon the pastor came to our aid and insisted that my friends were indeed (ahem) “welcome.” In response, one deacon ran to his truck but yelled that he was coming right back—with a shotgun.
When I was a youth pastor a few years later in the Arkansas Delta, I spent most of my days on the basketball court hanging out with my students and witnessing to others. Channeling my best Woody Harrelson from White Men Can’t Jump, I would make a lil’ wager with new comers. If they beat me, I would take them to the Speedy-Burger-in. But if I won, they would agree to give me twenty minutes to tell them about Jesus. Even when I lost, I often still got the chance to share the gospel with them over fried shrimp and shredded lettuce. I doubt this evangelism strategy is Southern Baptist approved—yikes, does Al Mohler read this blog!?—but, it worked. I led a number of both black and white students to Christ, and the best I knew how, I began to disciple these students.
It was “all good,” until one night, after a worship service, some church leaders ambushed me and said, “Those niggers aren’t welcome here.” With righteous indignation laced with hot, holy tears, I darted to my pastor to call him to arms and report to him what had happened. But, in a patronizing tone, he told me to calm down. “This is not a battle that we are going to fight. You’ll understand, Jody, when you are older.” (I‘m older now and still don‘t understand – and my name‘s not Jody!). I couldn’t let it go, so marshaling my strength, I drove to the house of the church’s patriarch. His response paralyzed me. “You see, son, the Bible says that Black people are cursed.” He flipped his old tattered leather-bound KJV to the story in Genesis where Noah gets drunk and naked and curses Canaan. With a sincerely wrong but genuine conviction, he argued that Black people come from the cursed lineage of Canaan and that‘s why we couldn’t worship with them. I regret to say that as a twenty-year-old-kid who spent more time playing NBA Jam than reading the Bible, I didn’t have the exegetical wherewithal to refute his historical and biblical fallacies. Nor am I confident it would have made a difference if I did. So there was only one thing that felt right to do. I resigned.
Four years later the Lord called me to serve as youth pastor at Wilcrest Baptist Church, a congregation in the area of Houston that boasted the city’s highest juvenile crime rate. In the early 90’s Wilcrest Baptist Church had been tempted to follow the “white flight” from its neighborhood, which was being “overrun” with non-whites. After much prayer, however, rather than joining the other churches in the exodus to the ‘burbs, Wilcrest decided to stay and be “God’s multi-ethnic bridge that draws all people to Jesus Christ, who transforms them from unbelievers to missionaries.” The congregation called Dr. Rodney Woo to lead them through the extreme church makeover. But the church had a long way to go and not everyone was on board. One man even asked Dr. Woo to add a “d” to his last name so as to make it more appealing to the remainder of white people in the area. Ten years later, however, Wilcrest had over 40 different nations represented. (Dr. Woo details the remarkable story in his book, The Color of Church).
Our youth group at Wilcrest was ¼ Hispanic, ¼ African-American, ¼ White, and ¼ gloriously other. For instance, the pastor’s kids were a Mexican-Chinese mix, so they affectionately referred to themselves as “Chexicans”. The hit-movie Remember the Titans had just been released on VHS as I drove with our students to youth camp one year. Since it was the only movie we had on the trip, the titans played non-stop for about four hours. Little did I know that during the ride, my students had jacked the chant and made it their own. As usual, Wilcrest arrived fashionably late. The predominately white youth camp gawked as our many-colored, motley crew rolled up and paraded out. Taking advantage of the attention, Ocampo—our loud mouth—spontaneously busted out with the new rendition of the titan chant. As if they had planned and rehearsed it countless times, the rest of our group followed in cadence.
Every where we go-o, (repeat: every where we go-o)
People wanna know-o (people wanna know-o)
Why are the black folks (why are the black folks)
Asians and Hispanics (Asians and Hispanics)
Hanging out with Honkeys (Hanging out with Honkeys)
So we tell them (so we tell them)
It’s about Jesus (It’s about Jesus)
The Mighty Mighty Jesus (The Mighty Mighty Jesus)
Where there is no black or white (where there is no black or white)
Greek or Jew-ew (Greek or Jew-ew)
So here we ar-e (So here we ar-e)
Bringing it to you (Bringing it to you)
At this point they all “broke it down” and began to dance and gyrate with an occasional pelvic thrust. My initial shock and embarrassment was quickly overcome by a sense of accomplishment. Albeit loud and obnoxious—not to mention politically and syntactically incorrect—my students were getting it. Christ is all and in all.
Similarly, one night as I was teaching through Paul’s proclamation that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” I caught Hudson, one of the said “Chexicans,” passing notes and giggling during my sermon—which of course made me assume I wasn’t getting through. After I dismissed the students and stayed around to lick my wounds and clean the room, I found the note he was passing. My frustration was eclipsed by joy as I read what he wrote:
Roses are red-ish,
Violets are blue-ish
If it wasn’t for Paul,
We’d all be Jewish.
I guess I should’ve let him preach the sermon.
After a ten-year odyssey to Scotland, Germany and beyond, I’m back in the South again: this time as a professor hoping to inspire and equip future church leaders. I’m happy to say that many of my current students get it too. But sadly, most of the churches around here don’t. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is still our most segregated hour. Rather than the egregious racism I saw displayed when I was younger, the church has now built a subtler, sophisticated wall to perpetuate its “separate but equal policy” in the body of Christ. Instead of playing the race card, now churches play the worship card. And it’s not just the white churches. For instance, during a MLK service held at my university a young black student voiced her opinion regarding whether we should seek to establish multiethnic churches. “No, I don’t think so, because ‘we’ like to worship differently than ‘they’ do.” When so many in the audience voiced their agreement, I vomited in my soul.
As you can see, with respect to race relations in the church, I’ve seen some triumphant highs and experienced some horrid lows. I’ve seen how far we’ve come but know how much further we’ve got to go. And I now submit to you that “worship style is the new face of racism in the church.” When it comes to music ministry I acknowledge that I am beyond my ken. I have more questions than I do answers—so I will leave you with some of them.
- Rather than saying how “we” like to worship over against how “they” like to worship, shouldn’t it be how “He” likes for us to worship? And if so, does He care more about music than he does unity?
- If worship styles divide believers rather than unite them, can we really call it worship?
- If we’ve reached the point where we are more concerned with music than we are with tearing down the dividing walls of racism, is it possible that we are worshiping “Worship” instead of God?
- It seems to me that the American church has more worship bands than Justin Bieber has fans; can any of them please go beyond their skinny jean comfort zone and write some worship songs that don’t smack of Tomlin and Crowder?
- (It’s probably just me, but does listening to K-love remind anyone else of NickelBack: all their songs sound the same?
- Now please don’t get me wrong, as a white dude, I heart Tomlin and really love me some Crowder, but is it possible to create worship songs for our churches, even a genre, that transcends race?
Maybe not. But we have to do something. Anything! Because as long as white folk just worship with white folk, Asians with Asians and Hispanics with Hispanics (etc.), do we not testify to the world that we identify more with the color of our skin than we do the cross of Jesus Christ?
Below are some links to books from various disciplines that have influenced me:
From Every People & Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (J. Daniel Hays)
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith)
United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (DeYoung, Emerson, Yancey, and Kim)
Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda (Katongole and Wilson-Hartgrove)
 I’m indebted to my friend Jay Newman for this line.
 I do believe that there are bands and songwriters out there doing this: just not nearly enough of them. If you are one of them I apologize for the caricature. For instance, my favorite artist is Sean Michel whose music is a fusion of classic rock and delta blues.