Efforts over the past 50 years to build racial bridges within the Christian church are fighting against centuries of church-sanctioned racism and racial rationalization.
The struggle even predates the founding of the AME Church, the first independent black denomination, in 1787. Its founders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, made the move after white congregants yanked them from their knees while they prayed in a whites-only section of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
For centuries, religious leaders justified slavery by saying slave traders and owners were fulfilling a duty of Christianity by enslaving and converting Africans, whom they said were inferior to whites. Even after the Civil War, white churches supported racial segregation, which forced African-Americans to create their own churches.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – in his final book, 1967’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” – wrote that the Christian church “has been an accomplice in structuring racism into the architecture of American society.”
The division persisted at the start of the civil rights movement when King and former Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike of New York were among the major religious leaders to say, “The 11 o’clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life.”
It’s still that way in Cincinnati. And, says one of the city’s most recognizable and senior church pastors, the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., the racial climate today is more toxic than 50 years ago and racial attitudes both in and outside of the church have hardened. He says too many white ministers and churchgoers still believe whites are superior to African-Americans.
“We’ve been at this for what seems like forever,” says Lynch, who in September will begin his 48th year as pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage. “The will is just not there for white Christians and white clergy to address racism.”