By Kristin Burns, Abigail Loop, Rayne Brown and Paula Ann Solis
Reporters and Staff Writer
In the middle of a nation adjusting to a new set of social laws, church is meant to be a place where believers can come together to worship.
“Race is still a very powerful factor,” Dr. James SoRelle professor of African-American history said. “I don’t think we live in a post-racial world.”
Lecturer of sociology Dr. Christopher Pieper said deficits in diversity of churches, especially in the south, can be seen today.
“It’s a huge issue,” Pieper said. “Dr. Martin Luther King said it very wisely that the most segregated hour in the United States is 9 o’clock on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, on that particular front, things have not gotten a lot more inclusive or multicultural despite the best efforts of many, many churches, both black and white.”
Whether the racial divide in churches is intentional or not is solely dependent on an individual’s perspective, but there’s no denying the fact that the people under the steeple are not always a true reflection of the people in the Waco community.
Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in downtown Waco is one of the many churches that lacks representation of Waco’s minority groups during regular church service.
Josh Vaughan, Columbus Avenue’s new head pastor, said the church is diverse in terms of age and socioeconomic statuses, but racial diversity is lacking on Sunday mornings. To promote multicultural growth, Vaughan said the church has a Hispanic service conducted in Spanish at a separate center and the church also allows an African-American group to hold their worship services in that building. Vaughn said giving African-Americans a place allows the group to more freely touch on their cultural reference points.
“I haven’t been there for Sunday morning service but I imagine it would be similar to the Hispanic service in that it is led in a different language,” Vaughan said. “I would assume the African-Americans are going to adopt a style that makes sense to their cultural background.”
Little Rock, Ark., senior Haley Hamlin who is a bible study leader at Columbus Avenue said the high prevalence of caucasian people at church does not tell the whole story of diveristy at Columbus Avenue.
“There’s definitely diversity, but if you’re going to look specifically at the percentages of racial diversity then it’s maybe predominantly white,” Hamlin said. “But I think that often might have to do with the demographic of people that are in Waco and the people in Waco that go to church. I don’t think that’s necessarily any reflection on the actual diversity of the church, and I also don’t think that’s any reflection on whether Columbus is welcoming or not to people that are not white.”
Vaughan said Columbus Avenue wants to be inviting on a multicultural level, but a more thoughtful and intentional expression of unity must first be accomplished.
But Columbus Avenue Baptist Church is not alone in this struggle to find diversity. Another church that experiences this same struggle is Carver Park Baptist Church, located in North Waco, is a predominantly African-American church.
Carver Park has an extensive history in Waco, dating back 61 years. The church was the final location black students marched to after a walkout in 1971. The walkout came as an aftermath to black students being integrated into La Vega high school–upset that they had to leave their former school, G.W. Carver High School. Baylor’s first black student, Robert Gilbert, who graduated in 1967 after Baylor integrated in 1963, was also the predecessor to the current pastor, Dr. Gaylon Foreman.
“Carver Park has always been a very active church in the community,” Foreman said. “My predecessor, Pastor Robert Gilbert, was a living legend. He would talk about the challenges of being the first and the challenges of being in a situation where everyone didn’t want you there, but he didn’t really dwell on it too much. His thing was making everything better for everyone else. Not only was he concerned with racial harmony, but he wanted people to do better.”
Foreman said the church’s worship style is non-traditional. The church has gone through a change in demographics concerning age. In earlier years, it was made up of mostly older members, but today the church consists largely of younger families and members. This change in the congregation brought changes to the church as a whole from the worship style to the preaching.
“It’s the Baptist tradition with a charismatic flare,” he said. “We blend the two. We do a little bit of all of it. It’s not traditional if you were raised in a traditional Baptist church. It came about because of our congregation. There was a shift as we began to get younger families and younger members. It just came about because when you have a younger, energetic group, that energy just brings about a change.”
Although the congregation has changed in regards to age, diversity in the church is still low. Foreman said he would like for his church to be more diverse, but he isn’t necessarily bothered that it’s not. His focus is more on the idea of creating a welcoming atmosphere.
“Because people go to a church that’s predominantly their race doesn’t mean they’re racist or that they don’t want to be with other people,” he said. “We’ve always had members who were not African-American, but not as many as we’d hope to see. I’m not one of those that’s bothered by the 11 o’clock hour being segregated. People go to where the worship style and preaching meet their needs. As long as everybody is welcome, that’s what really counts.”
While some churches still appear to be racially segregated, intentionally or not, there are some who are working diligently to cross over into multiple ethnicities and cultures.
Acts Church is a non-denominational church located in downtown Waco. The church is home to a diverse group of people. Baylor professors, Kate Ross Low-Income Public Housing residents and students from Baylor and surrounding colleges gather on Sundays for worship. Not only does the church display socioeconomic diversity, but it hosts members from a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
“We want this place to look like Heaven would look, and anything less than that, we don’t want it,” said associate and college pastor Omari Head. “We want all to be welcome, no matter race, no matter ethnicity, no matter none of that. We don’t want anything to stop anybody from encountering Jesus and so we just try to be as open as possible.”
Knowing how diverse their congregation is, leaders of Acts do their best to cater to, acknowledge and accommodate the different cultures and ethnicities by strategically choosing music and worship leaders.
“We sing a lot of different songs from different cultures and just different genres even. Sometimes we’ll do hymns, but we’ll also do gospel and we’ll also have contemporary Christian music,” said Norman, Okla., junior JaJa Chen. “I feel like Acts is really seeking to emphasize a love for the nations, a love for different cultures through prayer and researching different people-groups and their culture.”
Despite what is being done at churches such as Acts, Dr. Michael Parrish, Linden G. Bower professor of American history with an interest in Southern history, said there is a natural tendency for people to segregate. He said comfort, habit, socioeconomic and cultural differences are some of the reasons why students on campus segregate themselves instead of interacting with different people.
“People in society gravitate toward people like themselves,” Parrish said. “For kids, when they’re young, they feel fine mixing with other kids, but then tend to want affirmation from kids who look like them. It might have nothing to do with racial prejudice. It’s human nature.”
SoRelle said the tendency to congregate with people of similar skin color can be seen beyond the pews. He said the separation between where black and white students sit in the Bill Daniel Student Center is an example of this on campus.
Little Rock, Ark. senior Clarissa Burton said this division of race between the SUB and the Carroll Science building, where African-Americans congregate daily, is known among students as “little Africa.”
“It’s not because they have to,” he said. “The question is what happens if someone crosses those lines? If it causes a problem, that’s an indication that we haven’t fully addressed these issues. If it doesn’t matter where you go or what you join, then we are getting into a post-racial society.”