Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Energy Tech High School, Astoria, NY
Educators: Julie Edmonds, Katti Gray
Interracial Worship: How Two New York Churches Fight Against Religious Racism
Ever since its crimson gates first opened over 20 years ago, East Village’s Bible Crusade Assembly of God has solidified its leadership role in the storied neighborhood. A mere 2 words – Interracial Worship – on its exterior, however, capture the congregation’s agenda better than even its past.
When Reverend Joseph F. McCaulay established his church in the 1970s, his mission was set in stone. “We don’t want this to be a black temple or a white temple,” the preacher’s son, Benjamin, said on behalf of his father. “We want it to be everybody in one, because that’s the way heaven’s going to look – every race coming together.”
McCaulay’s childhood memories are reflective of the period he was raised in – a period in which prejudice ran rampant in a much younger America. Speaking on his experiences growing up, he detailed being looked at differently than his neighbors, being suspected of crimes he would never commit, and even watching his village gradually become gentrified over the years.
“We see segregation in these old black and white movies,” he said.
But racism is a different story. In fact, the most racially segregated hour of Christian America, according to Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., is “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
To this day, those words remain eerily relevant.
According to a recent survey by LifeWay Research, 86% of churchgoers say that their congregations are predominantly comprised of one ethnic group. The Pew Forum also indicates that in Baptist ministries, 99% of members are white.
The integration of America’s churches is not yet a reality.
Decades have passed since the 1960s, but the truth – that Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains defiled by race – continues to cast a haunting shadow over Christianity’s inclusive light.
At Eleven o’clock AM on July 14th, 2019, revelers were filing into Pastor McCaulay’s church for worship service.
The building pulsed with high-pitched organs and upbeat melodies, as the preacher ushered his people in with outstretched arms. Of the pairs of feet that paced underneath that longstanding Interracial Worship label, all belonged to African Americans.
In the sanctuary, lights shone dimly over a passageway of velvet carpet between pews leading up to the elevated altar. The pulpit sat directly atop two steps, preceding a lone black & white image of McCaulay’s wedding framed upon the wooden back section.
Service began with words of prayer over the congregation, the country, and the clergy. Leon, the reverend’s youngest son, manned the keyboards while his father stood through four hymns. Shortly after the churchgoers sat down, Benjamin McCaulay rose to deliver his message.
The young preacher’s sermon stood in direct alignment with the history of the establishment his father built: Race & Christianity.
“If you want to know who he is, his picture is in the word,” he said. “The Messiah wasn’t ever supposed to be described in a picture; if you really want to be blunt, they weren’t even supposed to try to portray what he looked like. But the world did that, and what happened was that it brought a lot of separation. Now we think we’re serving a white Jesus, a black Jesus, an Asian Jesus…” He continued, scanning the audience with eyes that sometimes peered above the Bible he read from. “And what does that bring?” It was a rhetorical question. “Race brings separation.”
When Pastor McCaulay climbed the steps once more to give the benediction, he prayed for the people. “God is colorblind,” he reminded them. “God is love.”
That concluded the service.
Former President Barack Obama once stated that the legacy of slavery “casts a long shadow” upon our country, referring to the many traces – vague and obvious – of racial disunion that linger from centuries ago. The church, however, is an often overlooked example of where this “shadow” happens to fall. Why?
“Most churches tend to be homogeneous with respect to socioeconomic characteristics,” wrote C. Kirk Hadaway in a 1984 study on Christian demographics. “Visitors who are different in ways much less obvious than race tend to find themselves subtly (or not so subtly) excluded.” The religion of Christianity is centered around unity and togetherness, but in most cases, societal conditions obstruct the fulfillment of such values. That leaves churches with quite the problem to be addressed – and social challenges do not make the road to a solution an easy one.
The dilemma is one that has been examined for years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Although racism was officially outlawed, religion was one of the many “underground” outlets in which it remained; and, without laws to reverse such effects, the problem persisted. In a 2017 article for the Washington Post, National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi provided further analysis on racism’s persistence in the face of newfound illegality.
“Racial disparities persisted after the law was passed because discriminatory policies persisted under a patina of colorblindness,” he wrote. “After the passage of the act, Americans quickly confused the death of Jim Crow for the death of racism.”
Racism did not die when Lyndon B. Johnson lifted his pen. It was simply evicted from the grand stage it enjoyed for centuries, and forced into the smaller, darker, underground corridor it lurks in today. Religion happens to be one of the many rooms found in racism’s hidden bunker.
Like the McCamery’s church, Long Island’s Bread of Life World Outreach Center also seeks to combat the issue – but by measures untouched by many other institutions.
“We started bringing teams to Africa about twenty years after I first went,” says Senior Executive Pastor Patricia Brown. She sits comfortably – dressed from head to toe in African garments, enveloped by mellow gusts of wind from the nearby Coco Beach, surrounded by Togolese and American colleagues alike. Poised and cross-legged, she glimpses over a balcony of what she dubs “the palace”: A mansion owned by one of over 500 preachers she has appointed in the country. “To bring people back to Africa from all ethnicities, and let them see the land of their ancestors, it allows this space for respect and honor.”
The church began its frequent voyages to Africa in 1978, when the Pastor and her husband, Bishop Hugh Brown, traveled to the nation at just seventeen years old in pursuit of the missions field. They had been married for only four weeks before they made the life-changing journey. Struggles, however, made the early days of the now-annual expedition quite laborious. In addition to coping with the stripped-down lifestyle that came with being new to the continent, the couple encountered violent threats, blatant sexism, and malaria – during pregnancy on one occasion – without proper medication, over the period of 1978 to 1979 alone. When asked what fueled their perseverance through obstacles like these year in and year out, the Pastor flashed a proud smile. “It gives you a sense of purpose,” she said. “You look around at all these people, and you begin to realize – this is where I came from. You get to see the richness of your heritage.”
At Eleven o’clock AM on that Sunday, November 3rd, 2019, Bread of Life’s missions team split up to preach in a combined nine churches across the city of Lome, Togo. Family by family, they exited Hotel La Concorde, where they stayed over the past week, and filed into the white coach bus parked across the street – conversing, laughing, and studying scripture together until they were whisked one by one to the institutions they would soon share their respective messages with.
Accompanying the Pastor and her husband on this year’s trip were dozens of clergymen and women, with roots ranging from Puerto Rico, to Guyana, to even Jamaica, where Bishop Brown himself originated.
In one church, parishioners stomped bare feet upon dirt floors to a choir of two, backed only by a drummer. No one sat. Mothers nursed infants between shouts of hallelujah, children swayed in long, hand-holding chains, and leaders stood in the front row with raised arms. After the preacher, a Trinidadian-born Pastor belonging to Bread of Life, finished his sermon to exuberant applause, the church’s apostle approached the podium.
“Many centuries ago, the Americans came to bring death to our fathers and grandfathers,” he said. The congregation that had spent the past several hours erupting with praise, stomping with fervour, shouting with elation – fell silent. Heads were bowed. Hands were held tighter. Lips were bitten.
In that moment of silence, just like the many others that take place in houses, classrooms, and congregations worldwide, the permanent effects of slavery were undeniable. Attempts to sugarcoat or ignore the latter are often proven vain by the words of such discussions. What makes the scars stick, however, are the images – images of flesh ripped away from innocent backs, images of forefathers dangling alongside the fruit they harvested, images of question marks veiling the future. As the apostle paused with his congregation, the images spoke in his place.
“But today…” Optimism now flowed from his voice, to the stern index finger he pointed towards the guest preacher.
“They come to speak life to our people.”
Less than a decade after Pastor and Apostle Brown first graced African soil together, their church was established in Amityville, New York, under the name Bread of Life Fellowship. That title, though, was officially removed in 2015 in favor of Bread of Life World Outreach Center – a name that was chosen to better highlight the church’s aim.
“Our mission is to reach the lost at all costs,” the couple often proclaims to its congregation. The words take front and center on the church’s website, they sit beneath the longstanding black and white globe that has served as its logo for decades, and they are uttered by nearly all parishioners who have set foot in the carpeted sanctuary.
Trips like this one bring those words to life every year.
The concept that both Bread of Life and Bible Crusade Assembly of God both seek to bring to life – interracial worship – is not only something that our country has yet to achieve, but it is also a feat that won’t be seen for many years. Church attendance at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is not the primary racial problem we have to solve. It is merely a small-scale glimpse of the eternal brokenness centuries of evil have bestowed upon our hopes of unity, a tiny space in the monstrous shadow ancestral doings cast upon today’s America.
But the fight isn’t over.
Martin Luther King Jr., the same man credited with the Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning quote, uttered one last vision of his for generations to come the night before he was assassinated.
“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The world still has a great deal of mountain to scale.
But for two New York churches, racism – hidden or open – has no place in pews.