Sunday morning, our country’s “most segregated hour,” unites people in Oakland

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, in 1968 during his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated, “We must face the sad fact that at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

Among Protestant churches with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, only 7 percent are multiracial, says Michael Emerson, a scholar on race and religion at Rice University.

But in Oakland, Imani Community Church and Piedmont Community Church are two congregations, one predominantly black, the other predominantly white, that have developed a sisterhood. Both churches combine for an annual choir concert and every year have two “pulpit exchanges,” in which the pastor from one church leads worship at the other church. Joint worship services go back several decades, but they have always been rare, and continue to be rare.

Emerson defines a racially diverse church as one in which no one racial group makes up 80 percent or more of the congregation. Mathematically, he said, at 20 percent diversity the statistical likelihood of encountering someone of another racial or ethnic group is 99 percent.  But beyond this, he said, based on research in many types of organizations, 20 percent diversity is the point at which the demographic minority groups voices are heard and they can affect change on the organization.  If they make up less than 20 percent, he said, members of the groups are tokens—there but essentially having to assimilate to the larger group.

These estimates are based on the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study. “Things don’t change rapidly at the level of church racial diversity,” Emerson said.  “Still, that study is being repeated this year, so that we can see if there are any changes.”

Kevin Dougherty, a leading sociologist at Baylor University, found that 15 percent of U.S. congregations today are  multiracial, meaning that no single group represents over 80 percent of participants.  This means, he said, that still more than 8 out of 10 U.S. congregations are largely homogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity. “In the most intimate levels of life (faith, friends, family), we remain a nation divided by race,” he said.

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