Most pastors would like more racial diversity in their white congregations

Most white pastors would like more racially diverse congregations.

But they understand why they aren’t.

“Worship style, preaching style and traditions of leadership usually cause the separation among us,” said the Rev. Bob Hill of Community Christian Church at 46th and Main streets near the Plaza.

“I think the worship style and preaching style are huge factors for both Anglo congregations and African-American congregations,” he said. “They both cherish their traditions and don’t want to let them go.”

That mirrors the views expressed by the African-American ministers.

One of the lessons a pastor learns is that a congregation can reflect what the members see standing in front of them, said the Rev. Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.

“For example, if you have a younger pastor with kids, that tends to be the demographic you attract,” he said.

Of the 106 congregations in the Heartland Presbytery, 97 percent of the ministers are white, “and if that’s who are called to the pulpits, that will be reflected in the congregations,” Rock said.

Rock said most white churches are serious about integrating.

“When we are with Christ, it will be a multicultural experience,” he said. “If heaven is multicultural, our churches should be multicultural. Also, our churches should reflect the increasing multiculturalism in our country.”

The Sheffield Family Life Center in the Northeast area could be one of the more multicultural churches in the city.

In 2001, it was 40 percent white, 40 percent African-American and 20 percent Hispanic. Gradually the African-American attendance increased. Today the church is 70 percent African-American.

“We want to keep it integrated,” said the Rev. George Westlake III, senior pastor. “We have been intentional to make sure that we have a mix, including in leadership of African-Americans and Hispanics at all levels.

“I think a lot of predominately white churches that don’t have minorities lack diversity in leadership positions, and the music style does not attract minorities.”

He said Sheffield does a lot of black gospel music, but also music heard in white churches.

Westlake thinks the main reason most churches are not integrated is because their communities are not integrated. The community surrounding Sheffield is about 75 percent nonwhite, mainly African-Americans and Hispanics, he said.

Margaret Lima, pastoral administrator at Guardian Angels Catholic Church at Mercier Street and Westport Road, agrees that location is a factor. She said her church has seen an influx of people from India and Africa.

“There are not that many African-American Catholics, and those we have tend to go to churches where they live,” she said. “Our church is in a multicultural area of about half white, a third Hispanic and then a multi-mix that includes African-Americans.”

Demographics also are a factor, said the Rev. Gail Greenwell of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission.

“Our church has a desire for diversity, but the neighborhoods we pull from are mostly white,” she said. “God has created incredible diversity and our communities should reflect that as much as we can,” she said.

The Rev. Keith Herron of Holmeswood Baptist Church, 9700 Holmes Road, said there is a mix of races in his congregation but to a lesser percentage than that of minorities in the area. He said some white churches may not be aware of latent racism in their congregations.

“That is subtly evident when someone ‘other than us’ comes to visit, and our true beliefs or ugly thoughts surface,” Herron said. “The visitor recognizes the signs, however, and knows there are some in the church who would rather they not widen their welcome with a true spirit of God’s inclusion.”

In Jewish congregations, the situation is much different.

There are not many African-Americans in area Jewish congregations because there are not many African-American Jews in the community, said Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park.

“Many of the Jews that are African-American have converted to Judaism,” he said, adding that race is not an issue. “We welcome everyone who is Jewish who wants to attend,” he said. “Integration is not the issue. We accept everyone, regardless of background, as the image of God.”

Hill, of Community Christian, said there are different ways to integrate. For example, he and his congregation have worked with groups that bring races together to work on problems of racial and economic equality. This has included African-American, white and Jewish congregations.

Also, Community Christian and the predominantly African-American Swope Parkway United Christian Church share fellowship, meals and education forums several times a year, and take turns hosting Juneteenth celebrations.

“We need to intentionally create opportunities for alliances across racial lines,” he said.

Also, Hill said, “the way to integrate our congregations is to integrate our personal lives, and pastors can lead the way.

“How many homes have we been in that are different ethnically than ours, and how many have been to our homes?” he asked.

Westlake, of Sheffield, said congregations have to be willing to embrace cultural divide and have a genuine love and respect for each other. And, pastors see hope.

“The generation of teenagers and young adults, I don’t think they see racial differences as much as the generations before them,” Westlake said.

“In the future, I think we will see more mixed-race families, and the racial divides will continue to melt away,” Rock said. “But for the near future, we will continue to have division.”

But the challenge is reachable, Hill said, quoting an old saying: “We may have come over on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.”

Originally published here: