Segregated Sundays

guestblacks, christianity, church, Culture, Discrimination, diversity, inter-faith, missionary, Mormon, news, race, racism, religion, sacrament meeting 25 Comments

Today’s post is by Rachel Maw.  I was scanning through the news stories over at when I came across this article, “Why many Americans prefer their Sundays segregated”. It started me thinking about my own ward.  I live in a state where about 30% of the population is Hispanic, but you wouldn’t know it by going to a Sacrament Meeting Sunday morning.  We have a mostly white congregation with a minority member here and there.  For a while we had an Asian contingent in our ward.  It was so nice to have some diversity.  They added a different view point in lessons and helped us to learn more about different cultures.

In many ways our church is different from other churches because we attend Sunday services based on geography.  But, does that make it harder for members who may be the only minority members in their wards?

In the article it says that many blacks said they wanted a racial timeout on Sunday.   “They would say, ’I need a place of refuge,…I need to come to a place on Sunday morning where I don’t experience racism.”
This could probably be said of other races as well.

Interracial church advocates  state “churches should be interracial whenever possible because their success could ultimately reduce racial friction in America.”

Advocates also say “the church was never meant to be segregated.  They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew – it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another.”

Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of “United by Faith” says “the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive.  He says the church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world.”

“People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women – the huge divides of that time period – could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion”.

Thomas Brelsford, co-author of “We are the Church Together” said “Only when ethnic groups no longer feel compelled to abandon their entire culture on Sunday morning can a church claim to be interracial……..An interracial church isn’t one in which all the black members act, dress and worship like the church’s majority white members to make them feel comfortable…….Interracial churches resist ‘taking one dominant identity and forcing everyone to fit into it.’”

As I read this article here are some of the questions that came to mind…

Are we doing enough to make minorities feel welcome in our congregations?  What can we do better?

How do racial issues affect missionary work?

Have we done enough to address the issues of things like Blacks and the Priesthood?  (for more on this, read what  Marvin Perkins has to say about it.)

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Comments 25

  1. That seems so strange that they say “they want a break from racism,” because segregation to me is the clearest sign of racism. Worshiping with people from all backgrounds is the best way I can see to put us all at the same level as children of God.

  2. Interesting.

    “Advocates also say “the church was never meant to be segregated.” Sure, as long as its the so called ethnics who integrate into the majority.

    “the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive.” Not at the ward level. The church was inclusive at the world wide level that is from Rome to Jerusalem.

    “….Interracial churches resist ‘taking one dominant identity and forcing everyone to fit into it.’” This is critical. I now of wards where there is a reverse racism, where the dominant culture, be it latino or samoan or others, rejects the main culture and discriminates against white in callings and in not translating talks or prayers given in another language. Then its the white dude who feels out of place and stops showing up to activities like ward christmas party. So called segregation wards avoid that scenario altogether. People keep their own culture, for example tongan, convert other tongans and gradually adopt the local culture anyway over a few generations.

    To answer your questions:

    1- I don’t think you could ever do enough to make minorities feel completely welcomed because its a cultural problem that only ends when the minority is no longer a cultural minority. Its the minority person who feels out of place due to the different culture even when people are friendly and inviting or decent latter-day saints. Its not the whites problem at all. Its like trying to force you to integrate into the family of your next door neighbour by been forced to become their 4 daughter! It take a lot of time to do and the younger you start the better the chances of success.

    2-It affects it alot when the majority culture is different to the investigators. Like when you have a majority latino ward, that is local english, and you bring a polish investigator, he has the added burden of trying to understand the latino culture at church on top of understanding the missionaries english culture. It would be better to have an english ward as a culturally english one and let the latinos or tongans, have their own ward where they can be part of their own ward family.

    3- I think they have. Only missing is a black apostle from africa or a brown apostle from the pacific.

  3. Integration may be the best environment to foster equality, but is doesn’t mean that in a integrated environment there wont be many who hold oppressive, derogatory attitudes towards others.

    It’s more than just putting people together in the same room, it’s about changing attitudes.

  4. First of all, it is human nature that “like is attracted to like.” Our job is to make that “like” be the gospel and not ethnic background, economic station, culture, etc. When one is taught for many years to “be with your own kind,” it is hard to “de-program’ that. The church has made a number of attempts to disband specialty units, based on martial status, ethnic and cultural background (including language) but keeps going back to them because the drop off in attendance becomes too great to have just pure geographic units. Oh my heck, they have full Stakes based on ethnic/cultural background.

    It appears that we (LDS) are not ready as a people to fully embrace each other as brothers and sisters in the gospel. It’s an easy thing to say, but a very hard thing to do for both sides.

  5. I thought that the church encourages segragation of wards. There are Tongan only wards, Spanish only wards, etc… When I was on business in Singapore, there were different wards depending on the racial and ethnic group of the LDS members. It seems that our culture encourages and endorses the segragation of the races within the church structure.

  6. #4 Ray said: “I’ve never understood how separate but equal is a good thing in religion.”

    Sure you have Ray, you call it marriage for heterosexuals and civil unions for gays. Separate, but equal. It’s informed by your religious views, allowing you to maintain comfort in your religion (e.g. “be nice to people”) while still allowing you to maintain comfort in your other religion (e.g. “follow the prophet”). Your separate but equal stance allows you to hold both religious ideas at once, and both are important to you.

    And, I don’t mean this as a “thread jack” but you have several times promoted your “separate but equal” views on other threads.

    Now, regarding the segregation at church issue:

    I think my understanding is similar to GeorgeGT, but my experience with it has been primarily along “language” issues. When there has been a significant contingent of a particular language group in stakes where I’ve been, they first encouraged those who understood that language to attend a particular unit where there was translation available. If and when the group got large enough, a branch was formed, speaking Vietnamese, or Spanish or whatever.

    And, the Biblical history does frequently have examples of it being “God’s will” to wipe out the “other” folks (who at least sometimes were ethnically and culturally different), and as recently as 30 years ago our church was vehement in its opposition to interracial marriage. I think integration is going to take a LONG time in our church. We have a long history of feeling it is OK to draw distinctions between people based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. that many other religions have long ago abandoned. We make these claims (and/or have made them in the past) as being God’s will, and made bold statements that we would neither change nor apologize.

    Gradually, however, we change. It will be a slow process, and painful. The population of the US is already very varied, but if I understand correctly, the population of Brazil has great variation also, but also more mixing of races, cultures, etc. Last I heard the church was still growing in Brazil. Maybe they’ll teach the rest of us how to do mix and integrate.

    We’ll get there

  7. #7 Note that Brasil has Korean and Japanese language units in São Paulo.

    #5 Jeff,

    “It appears that we (LDS) are not ready as a people to fully embrace each other as brothers and sisters in the gospel.”

    I see what you’re getting at but I have to disagree with it.

    I’ve only found LDS who want to be accepting and embracing of other peoples but find that the language and cultural barriers are far too big to overcome. It’s not their fault that this is so. Members are taught religion but no cross-cultural awareness and communication techniques, only missionaries get that. And hopefully they won’t add cross-cultural training for members because it means more meetings and lessons.

  8. #8 “hopefully they won’t add cross-cultural training for members because it means more meetings and lessons”

    Maybe, Carlos, but there have been times when the Sunday School block was used for different things, and still can have different classes taught other than Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Essentials. So, there might be a place for it. Or, there might be a place for it kind of like they used to do the opening to Sunday School as a chance to learn a new hymn (back when the green hymnal was new, I think we did this as an HQ sponsored 10 min between Sacrament meeting and Sunday School – time that came out of the Sunday School hour, if I recall. Wouldn’t something like that be an interesting idea, 10 minutes per week of cultural training or language training. There could be hiccups (like teach 100 Americans one or two phrases in Korean, then they will ALL go use them on the one Korean family in the ward, and drive the poor family nuts), but doing something like that might be eye-opening, and also might do something to help our membership distinguish between “Doctrine” and “Culture”. For example, I remember when our southern ward was told to STOP saying “good morning” back to the speaker at the pulpit. Seemed positively rude to some of us not to say “good morning” but the “Utah Mormons” told us it was “doctrine” that we shouldn’t respond. While I can understand in Orem it might seem “odd” for the congregation to say “good morning” to the bishop when he said good morning to them, it wasn’t at all “odd” for us. But, we were enjoined from doing it. Interestingly, I understand the custom is practiced widely in Hawaii. And we had a Hawaiian sister who would get up to bear her testimony, she would always start with “Aloha, my brothers and sisters,” and if we didn’t respond “Aloha” back to her, it made her uncomfortable. So, we didn’t get to say “good morning,” but about once a month with Sister P got up, we got to say “Aloha.”

  9. Andrew, that comparison is fundamentally flawed. I don’t want to turn this into another discussion of gay marriage, so I won’t do so. I know we see differently on that issue, and we aren’t going to change each other’s mind. I’ll just say that I disagree with separate but equal in the classic sense discussed in this thread (dividing by race within congregations) and don’t feel my stance on marriage is applicable to this discussion. I won’t comment further on that.

    Language is a completely different discussion. I have no problem whatsoever with holding services based on language. What’s the purpose of mixing languages if people can’t understand each other? If there are enough people to support a congreagation, I feel they should hear the Gospel in their own tongue – not just in their own language. Again, that’s a separate issue entirely than the one in the article – separating those who speak the same language strictly because of race or ethnic identification. (Btw, I have said more than once that I don’t like singles wards.)

  10. Is it just a french thing then to have black (pure blooded african) branch president leading a church unit with blacks and whites mingling wihtout giving a second thought? This happened to me twice when I was younger.

    Or do you think it is because we don’t have enough members to afford church unit for each cultural back ground?

  11. “Plenty” might not be the best word choice. I meant “more than a handful” – not “enough”. I wish it was the case in more, but the numbers are climbing slowly but steadily.

  12. The language issue can be challenging in and of itself also, however. I have been in stakes where they have the foreign language branch meet at the same time in the same building as an English speaking ward. This allows, for example, the children who often speak much better English than the older generations to attend Primary or YM/YW in English. The branch might have its Sac Mtg in the Relief Society room or something while the ward is using the chapel. With a little creativity, they can make room for the Sunday School classes they need also, but usually when they have done this shared times thing, there have been no foreign language Primary or YM/YW. This process (when facilities allow) can be a pretty good long-term solution to desegregation, because as the younger generations come up, they will be used to being integrated, and have the language skills, etc.

    And Ray, I apologize if you feel I have mischaracterized your previous statements on “separate but equal.”

    The “dividing by race” within congregations, however, is also a dicey thing, at least at times, because people frequently live in largely segregated areas, “china towns” or “latin district” etc. and to create a church unit that isn’t segregated might involve requiring people to drive longer distances for the purpose of integration (which has met with dubious success when tried in other forurms, e.g. public schools, etc.) so this becomes a very complex issue.

    In those instances where the area is reasonably well integrated and there are members from throughout that population, then it’s easy to have an integrated ward, and that seems to me to be the best policy.

  13. #9 Andrew

    “(like teach 100 Americans one or two phrases in Korean, then they will ALL go use them on the one Korean family in the ward,”

    Made me laugh, Koreans will hide that week 🙂 good one.

    And yes they could do what you describe here, since sunday school is supposed to be flexible. Oh, and the answering back is also common in the islands, tonga samoan etc even in some New Zealand wards. And people do get offended when there is no answer in return.

    #10 Ray,

    “I don’t want to turn this into another discussion of gay marriage, so I won’t do so” Thank the Lord Jesus, and Mary, and all the other saints too! 🙂

    #11 -#14,

    I’d say that the church doesn’t segregate based on race but the unintended consequence of setting up language units is that to the outsider they give the appearance of being actually segragated based on race.

  14. CarlosJC – “to the outsider they give the appearance of being actually segregated based on race.” And of course, over time, the physical segregation can lead to segregated feelings as several have pointed out.

  15. Andrew, there is a building in our stake that houses three congregations – which is very rare in this area. Two are English-speaking wards, and the other is a Spanish-speaking branch. For quite a while, the structure was exactly as you describe – and it was perfect while the branch still was small.

    I agree that congregations can appear to be segregated in areas that actually have few minority members, but I definitely don’t want to integrate by fiat across geographic lines – to have some members driving great distances while their neighbors aren’t. Strictly geographic boundaries are the most dispassionate and unbiased method I have seen, and there would be “issues” no matter what other system was tried.

    As to any mis-characterization, it’s cool. I know it wasn’t intentional. I’ve done it too many times to others to be torqued about it over something like this.

  16. Are we doing enough to make minorities feel welcome in our congregations?

    This is one of the things I loved about living in California. So many of the wards had diversity (as did the workplace). I mostly attended singles wards there, but also visited some traditional wards. The ‘laid-back’ Southern California attitude provided a good backdrop for congregations with diversity meeting without any thought that there was something unique in the church going on. Still, I was in the white majority in those congregations which likely caused my view to be from the group that was the most comfortable. I did, however, attend an institute dance at an institute building with which I was unfamiliar, and was the only white person attending in a large group of hispanic young LDS. The music was not what I was used to dancing to, and I sat on the fringes, unsure if I could muster up the boldness to try something new. I was approached by individuals welcoming me and encouraging me to dance, but I felt awkward. I felt out of my culture and had not gone to the dance with an expectation of that sort. Looking back, I missed out on a great opportunity because of natural shyness in social settings being magnified by the unexpected cultural musical, dancing, and language mixtures.

  17. One more thing,

    I was a young kid in a ward that received members that were previously attending a Spanish Branch. Equipment was placed in our building for headsets and interpreters faithfully interpreted the talks in Sacrament meeting. I do not remember whether a Sunday School class was conducted in Spanish. My dad and I were assigned to home teach an older couple who spoke little English. We got a copy of the Spanish version of the FHE manual (back then they put out a new manual every year) and picked out a message using our corresponding English manual. We then proceeded to read it to them in their home, slaughtering the accent, I’m sure. They were kind to us, especially me–recognizing that it could prompt me to study Spanish academically. We learned Silent Night as a family in Spanish and went caroling at Christmas time. I think it was very hard for those members to adapt back then. I have sat through Sacrament meetings where I couldn’t understand one bit of the talks, and it gets pretty boring. I remember, however, one elderly, white-haired Mexican-American man getting up to bear his testimony to the congregation (in Spanish). I was young and I probably zoned out while a soft-spoken translator tried to tell the English speakers what he was saying. My dad later told me that this brother testified that he had been very concerned for his brothers and sisters as the church announced that the Spanish speaking branch would be dissolved. He prayed earnestly for reassurance that this was going to turn out well. He had a dream where President Kimball (the prophet at the time) came and spoke to him (in Spanish) that this was the will of the Lord and that things would work out. I’m glad my dad was listening and then shared this wonderful experience with me. The man who bore his testimony was an extremely humble man. I will never forget his example of quiet faith.

  18. Rachel,

    Your state may be 30% hispanic, but is your neighborhood? And are your neighbors members? I think the segregation on Sundays in our church is due to the segregation many of us choose in where we live. I have a friend who is Ba’hai and one of their tenants (according to him) to fight racism is that regardless of your race, you should go live in a place that has predominantly people from another race – which he did, which meant in our city that he moved to a neighborhood that is pretty rough. Ouch – are we racist if we don’t want to do that?

    I got lucky enough to live in a ward that seemed about 50/50 black /white mainly because the geographic boundaries were huge. There were problems, it seemed that there was some unspoken “Affirmative Action” used in callings (each presidency would include at least one white and one black member) which was probably necessary to make everyone feel included. It was a ward that included the inner-city of a metro area, so there were many socio-economic issues at church, and one of the reasons we left was to give our kids a more traditional church experience. Now that we have that, I miss the diversity tremendously (grass is always greener . . .)

    I think we are all willing and eager to attend church with people from other races who are a match with us socio-economically, but tougher questions to ask are how much of our religious culture are we willing to sacrifice to attain diversity or should we require everyone to conform to our white, western, middle-class mode of operation? And do we want diversity enough to move (or is it just my city where the neighborhoods are pretty segregated too)?

  19. This topic has fascinated me since my mission which historically included a separate Asian branch but at the time of my mission was incorporated into an extremely diverse ward: we had Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Brazilian, Liberian, Sierra Lione, local puritan stock from the east and pioneer stock from Utah, extremely diverse ward, extremely challenging to bring together but also beautiful to the extent that they could bring it together.

    The church has swung back and forth on their policies and strategies in regards to separate ethnic or language branches in accordance with different administrations. There are some excellent books out there detailing that history: the studies by Jessie Embry out of BYU and All of Abraham’s Children.

    I personally think language should be a stronger determining factor than ethnicity in the decision to create a “segregated” branch. I think every person has a right to hear and learn the gospel in their own tongue. I think there can be creative solutions to allow different languages to worship separately but to interact together. My current stake brings together English speaking and Spanish speaking members in a cross-tutoring program. Service and ward activities can be shared. It often makes sense to share primary and youth classes if the adults need separated language classes.

    I do like the geographic based division of LDS wards as it can foster local community but I also think those geographic boundaries can be strategically drawn to strengthen the stake or area as a whole.

    Of course we are striving for Zion communities, our goal should always be to be of one heart and one mind and to interact across any such barriers as race or socio-economical status, to have no -ites among us, but I do think there can be creative alternatives beyond fully integrated or fully segregated that will allow the church to grow more rapidly, lessening the lingual and cultural shock barriers for minority populations, as well as building critical leadership in minority populations while still building intercultural communities.

  20. Welcome, Dave. Thanks for your input. I had a similar experience in Lowell, MA years ago with an Asian branch. I still recall that branch with fondness.

  21. I was there one year somewhere between 89-91; I can’t remember exactly what year. I taught seminary in the branch while I was in college – home study throughout the week then an hour class each Sunday after church ended. It was tough on my wife, since we had two very young children at the time, and she attended the Arlington Ward with them while I was gone every week. (We lived in Woburn.)

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