(RNS) In the wake of a string of racially tinged shootings, majority white churches — even those quiet in past years about racial prejudice — have begun to find their voices.
The latest incidents of police shooting black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, combined with the targeting of white police officers in Dallas, have exposed for many congregations a racial divide in America too wide to ignore.
“There is a sense of a need to re-engage on a deeper level,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, former leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyterians need to ask themselves “if the communities that we are leading reflect the Gospel values that we say we have.”
His sentiments reflect increased national attention on racial tensions, which rose sharply after the 2014 killing by a policeman of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. More recently, the PCUSA, which is 92 percent white and one of the largest of the nation’s mainline denominations — and several other majority white churches — have declared their own complicity in racism and pledged to do better.
Their words may still fall short but are not lost on many black clergy, who long have been leaders in working for racial justice.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go with denominations, but you see hopeful signs,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby of South Carolina, a presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “If the Southern Baptists can pass progressive stuff, well, that’s quite different.”
Darby referred to a vote to repudiate the use of the Confederate flag taken last month by Southern Baptists, a denomination historically known for its conservatism on social issues and race relations.
But the Rev. Delman Coates, who pastors a black megachurch in Clinton, Md., criticized the decision of some white church leaders and denominations to speak up only after police were killed.
“This disparity is deeply disconcerting to me and, I think, a lot of folks,” said Coates, who is president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality.
Among the actions predominantly white churches have taken on race recently:
— The nation’s second largest Presbyterian denomination — the Presbyterian Church in America — in June repented for “past failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures” and committed its members to work toward racial reconciliation.
— Also in June, the PCUSA adopted the Confession of Belhar, a statement of belief originally adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa to stand against apartheid. It has been adopted by other churches in recent decades to affirm their inclusion of all who profess faith in Jesus Christ.
— An official of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which will consider recognizing the Belhar Confession in 2017 as a “contemporary testimony,” called last week for “talk about systemic racism and gun violence” in light of the recent shootings by and of police.
— The Washington National Cathedral is holding a panel discussion on Sunday (July 17) called “Racial Reconciliation: What the White Church Must Do.”
Coates, who preached in November at his church on that theme and is a scheduled speaker at the cathedral, wants white clergy to address racial injustice head-on.
That means calling for an end to police stop-and-frisk procedures, not just pleas to take down the Confederate flag, he said. While commending white denominations that have made progress on race relations, Coates said, “it must be done in collaboration with leading progressive African-American voices to hear what the strategies, suggestions and issues are.”
Russell Moore, a white Southern Baptist leader who has encouraged white-majority churches to reach out to blacks, drafted sermonizing tips for pastors in the wake of the shooting deaths last week of black men by police in Baton Rouge, La., and near St. Paul, Minn., and of five Dallas police officers.
“If it seems that your church ignored the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then it may well be that the struggles of black lives are invisible to your people; speak to that,” he advised.
He continued: “If it seems that your church members were concerned greatly about the injustices apparent in those situations (and the many just like them) but don’t know to think or pray about the attack in Dallas, speak to that.”
Some white pastors already have tried to address racial injustice in their sermons or by planting “Black Lives Matter” banners on the churches’ lawns or organizing workshops to address white privilege.
At the memorial service Tuesday for the police officers gunned down in Dallas — men who died at the hands of a shooter authorities said wanted to kill white officers — President Obama cautioned mourners against ignoring peaceful protests about racial prejudice disproportionately visited on black people.
“To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and co-workers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts,” the president said. “Surely we can see that, all of us.”
As black churches continue their work on racial justice and more white churches join that cause, a black pastor of a multiethnic evangelical megachurch near Charlotte, N.C., said regular interracial worship will also be key to improving race relations.
“How can I love my neighbor if I don’t know my neighbor?” asked Pastor Derwin Gray of Transformation Church, author of a book on multiethnic churches. “If the only time pulpits ring with ‘racial injustice’ and ‘racism’ is after a national travesty, that plays a role in why we keep having these travesties.”