Friday, June 17, 2011

"Still Very White”

“…Baptist leaders also believe that attracting more minorities would help reverse the decline. About 19 percent of their churches are African-American, Hispanic, Asian American or other minority congregations. “We’ve got a long way to go for more ethnic diversity,” Rainer said. “We are still a very white denomination….”

These comments as Southern Baptist leaders reflected on numbers indicating a decline in their denomination made me smile! Of the approximately 37,000 Southern Baptist churches, home to 16,136,044 members in the US, only 19% of their churches are minority congregations...I was green with envy!

While the membership statistics of the SBC do not reflect the diversity of the US population, they certainly do so better than our own Episcopal Church! This is true, despite the mantra we hold dear; “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You", and our insistence that we are an "inclusive" church. Figures reported on the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey showed that a mere 8.5% of Episcopal parishes were predominantly minority; 5% African American, 1.5 % Native American, 1.4% Latino, and 1.5 % Pacific Islander. There are many historical and practical reasons for this, I am sure! There are also patterns we must overcome as we approach church planting and evangelism if we are to be the more than a church for white retirees!.

Consider this from our own diocesan experience; the diocese of Florida has been in existence since 1838, which is 171 years, and in that time, has a handful of primarily African American congregations, a Hispanic congregation which came fully formed into the diocese from another denomination and a mission planted by Diocese. The Southern Baptists, by contrast have, just in the Duval county area, at least 10 Hispanic churches and several stable missions. The Baptist outreach to Latinos in Jacksonville began in 1960 when less than 0.5% of the population of the city was Hispanic. Our diocese had no Spanish language services, no missions or prayer groups active in any of its churches in 2008! That is almost 50 years later, even as the number of Latinos mushroomed in the county and region. One has to wonder how that happens!

In the three years since coming into the diocese of Florida as part of its first Latino ministry, there have been Spanish language ministries planted by Southern Baptists in at least 4 other locations in the area served by the diocese of Florida; in St Augustine, Neptune Beach, and just around the corner from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church! They use space provided by larger Anglo congregations, share pastors and lay leaders, alternate service times and are beginning to show promise! We in contrast, despite willingness among the Latino clergy and vocal support from diocesan leaders, have managed to plant one mission with hopes for more at some undefined point in the future.

Sadly, that seems to be the norm in many dioceses of the Episcopal Church! We have a distinguished history, beautiful liturgy and music,theological roomyness and despite the economic crises, no lack of funds! Yet we find ourselves static, unprepared, uncertain, and frozen even as our neighborhoods change, members age, and people of other colors and languages show up at our doors to an uncertain welcome! What is it about us Episcopalians? Even as we say our doors are open to all, we seem to make little effort to reach them and appear to be locked into inaction as opportunities for mission pass us by! We are inspired and intent on helping people of different colors and languages who live far away, even as those same people live next door to our parishes and are becoming more the face of the neighborhoods we serve.

“Still very white”…what an honest statement from a community of faith that has shown a willingness to reach the unchurched and, been pioneers in ministry to Latinos and other minorities! We definitely should take it to heart, reflect seriously on our evangelism priorities, and with prayer and concrete actions make the changes and difficult choices that make welcome and diversity more than words in our diocese and the Episcopal Church!



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