by Wayne Stapleton
NAB VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement
When I was on staff at Grace Community Church in Detroit, Michigan, I loved how the church leadership pursued having a worship stage that reflected the diversity of church attendees. There was a significant African American population at the predominantly White church. I was the only African American pastor on a staff with four other pastors and other shepherding leaders. But on any given Sunday, you could tell during the time of singing praises that this was a community that embraced not being mono-cultural. While many churches have varying degrees of racial and cultural diversity, it is not always clear how much this diversity is embraced, especially at the front of the worship center.
It isn’t and has not always been this way. American church history reveals cases in which segregation in worship was enforced, even inside the sanctuary while worshiping Jesus. And thus, in many cases separate church denominations were birthed to serve those treated as second class citizens.
It is still hard to imagine two men praying in a church and being told to stop. Yet that is exactly what happened in St. George’s Church, an interracial Methodist church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On a Sunday in 1792, Black ministers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones went into St. George’s to worship Jesus. As Jemar Tisby writes in The Color of Compromise, “Unknowingly, (Allen and Jones) took seats reserved for white parishioners and thus violated the segregated seating arrangements. They knelt to pray but one of the church’s white trustees soon interrupted them. Allen recounts this episode in his biography:
We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H— M—, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees and saying, ‘You must get up — you must not kneel here.’ Mr. Jones replied, ‘wait until prayer is over.’ Mr. H— M— said ‘no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.’ Mr. Jones said, ‘wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more’” (pg. 53–54).
The trustees continued to demand that Jones leave. Another trustee came up to help pull Jones and Allen up off their knees. Allen recalled, “We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.” How tragic that members of the body of Christ would treat one another in this way.
As it turns out, Allen and his friends later met with an elder from the church who “discouraged them from raising money to build their own sanctuary and threatened them with church discipline” (p. 54). But this did not stop them. With his own money and a plot of land he owned, Allen helped found Bethel African Church in Philadelphia in 1794. In 1816, Allen helped found the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, becoming its first bishop. This is an example of an African American denomination that was born out of discrimination and enforced segregation.
Let us take this story and turn the light of investigation onto our own church communities. Surely no one would be turned away from praying in our own churches (right?), but how might history help us examine ourselves? Are we willing to ask tough questions of our own church communities regarding diversity and inclusion? Is there accepted yet less formal segregation inside the church? Are there barriers to church participation and levels of leadership for some of our attendees? What might Jesus want for our congregations?