A House of Prayer for All Peoples: Congregations Building Multiracial Community

Contrary to the oft-repeated truism, there are churches in America where Sunday is not the “most segregated day of the week,” as Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook convincingly demonstrates in her compelling exploration of congregations tackling racial justice issues. Yet the truism continues to haunt many congregations, and Kujawa-Holbrook reveals, through story and thoughtful analysis, what it means to create and live out multiracial community. Focusing on six congregations from different denominations, geographical regions, and settings, the author shows us the joys and struggles in their intentional pursuits of a more diverse and just community. The stories in A House of Prayer for All Peoples will inspire leaders to explore their congregation’s history, study their community’s demographics, and, most of all, search their souls for ways they can develop and celebrate the diversity in their midst. The book is capped by an extensive annotated resource list for readers who want to explore the topic further.

Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “A House of Prayer for All Peoples: Congregations Building Multiracial Community

  1. Review

    I got off on the wrong foot with this book. As someone who, except for gender, has always benefited by my racial status, I was a bit put off by the author’s stark reminder about white privilege, defined as “an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, code books, visas, tools and blank checks.” I wondered how dare she question my place in the social order.

    In ensuing chapters I was led, cajoled and charmed from resentment to curiosity. First impression notwithstanding, this is a fascinating and eminently practical book. It tells the stories of six congregations who have made the same kind of journey and wound up discovering themselves for the first time. Their histories, profiles and contexts vary, so anyone can find their own congregation reflected somewhere in these stories.

    Early on the author introduces the idea of “cultural competence.” Kujawa-Holbrook understands this as an intentional study of real differences between races and cultures. The author redefines the notion of color blindness as a preference for the white-dominated status quo.

    The author holds all forms of oppression as inherently evil, whether prejudice seeks to isolate people by class or age or physical ability. She writes: “Cultural competence suggests a knowledge of the complex nature of interlocking oppressions, rather than focusing on all forms of oppression through the lens of a single issue.”

    Kujawa-Holbrook is realistic about the tricks well-intentioned people play on themselves: “What we value as the ‘objective’ truth may not be perceived the same way by persons of different racial groups who have their own experiences of truth.”

    The statistics she sites suggest diversity is our future as a nation: “By 2050, Asians, Hispanics, non-Hispanic blacks and American Indians together will account for almost half the total population of the United States.” It remains to be seen whether the churches will embrace or ignore this future.

    If congregations decide to engage the future, the first step is an honest appraisal of where they stand vis-à-vis sisters and brothers who may not look or sound like the traditional Anglo “norm.” The author identifies several congregational types.

    Exclusive congregations are easy to identify; their members are perfectly content with the power structure as it is and always has been. They see no reason to reach out to people who bring different cultural, racial or economic issues to the table.

    More insidious is the passive congregation ; here the same familiar power structures are in place. A small number of people of color are welcome “as long as they do not threaten the established order.” Their presence allows the majority to hold on to the power and attitudes they have always held.

    In the next several models I see reflections of my own congregation. The compliant congregation says it values multiculturalism. But the reality is that there still is an insistence that people of different race, ethnic or cultural identity become “like me” – the Anglo norm. (An example is the congregation welcoming a growing Latino population but continuing to sing only pre-20 th -century English or German hymns.) Even the so-called antiracist congregation falls short. These folks celebrate a truly multicultural community on the surface, yet they fail to reshape policies and structures to bring it fully into being.

    Only the redefining congregation passes muster. This is a congregation that, in the author’s words, makes “intentional choices to rebuild its congregational life according to antiracist analysis and identity… Congregations at this stage of development undertake regular audits of all aspects of institutional life in order to ensure full participation of people of color. Here the congregation has transformed their means of organizing structures, policies, and practices in order to distribute power among all of the diverse groups in the congregation.” These congregations show a further commitment to eradicate racism and other forms of oppression in the wider community.

    Lest the challenges of the future seem overwhelming and readers like me left hopelessly discouraged, Kujawa-Holbrook presents six congregations as models. None of them has become the kingdom of God on earth; all have made significant progress toward becoming more inclusive, more healthy and more whole.

    Congregations range from locations in Washington State to Florida to Massachusetts. Some have formed partnerships as African-American-white congregations or Anglo-Latino congregations. Clergy and professional positions are staffed to reflect the diversity of each congregation. These churches are not content to seek change in a parochial vacuum; they work hard for change in the power structures of the larger community as well.

    Quincy First Presbyterian Church in Washington State developed its own “systems approach” to issues in the community. Members participate in a process in which they face the same sort of oppression their Hispanic neighbors experience. They learn what it is like for a Hispanic person in Quincy to get a building permit and what kind of barriers are experienced by persons – in a numerical majority — whose first language is not English. These painful encounters have transforming power for a community of faith.

    Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has learned to celebrate diversity in symbol and liturgy. Losing their old church in a fire, members took advantage of an opportunity to design space that fit their emerging identity as a multicultural congregation. Modern stained-glass windows bear images reflecting this now predominantly African American community. The open design of the new church permits a fluid and flexible worship style. Intergenerational life is celebrated as gifts offered by all ages, from pre-school children to seniors, are displayed around the church. Different choirs take turns leading worship every Sunday. The order of worship is based on the Lutheran Book of Worship , but adapted to offer “hospitality” across races, ethnicities and people experiencing church for the first time.

    The pastor at Cross, the Reverend Joe Ellwanger, sees liturgical inclusiveness building social consciousness: “It’s got to be from the heart and it’s got to be real… any congregation not walking with people on the edges will miss some of the gospel. The church has got to be involved in the transformation of the society.”

    Transformation at Cross includes the celebration of same-gender commitment ceremonies and annual “coming out services,” so gay and lesbian people feel known and accepted by the people worshipping with them every Sunday.

    In a concluding chapter relating love and power, Kujawa-Holbrook offers some final thoughts about the character of the multicultural church. She admits that authentic multicultural community is difficult to achieve and sustain. The author encourages congregational leaders to be patient with themselves as they fight the forces of complacency and criticism: “Obviously, change is personally painful to people in congregations, and any leader seeking multiracial community should be prepared for periods of resistance, conflict, doubt, and disillusionment.”

    Apparently the process of forming a truly inclusive and welcoming community will always be as complicated as it has been in my own congregation. There will be false starts, unexpected barriers, and parish leaders’ own impatience and frustration. Even so, Kujawa-Holbrook helps us get started with practical guideposts for the journey. The extensive bibliography and resource list at the back of the book is particularly helpful; my parish is already using one of the suggested books for a forum series on multicultural understanding.

    Anyone who takes the future of the Church (and the world) seriously should read this book.

    Anne Gavin Ritchie is the Rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria, Virginia, and one of TCPC’s founders.

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