The Return of Segregation?

I have to admit it: I’m an old white guy. In fact, I am a privileged old white guy. To be honest, I am a very privileged old white guy. I grew up in a middle class home with a successful businessman for a father. My mom was a “homemaker.” Mom and Dad both considered their primary vocation to be Christian parents, and to raise their five kids to “love and serve the Lord.”

Dad paid for college. Having been given a strong work ethic, I worked hard, did well, and made my way not only to grad school, but to Oxford. I was ordained as a minister, eventually got married to a wonderful woman, and we have four terrific children—all of whom have graduated from college and are doing well. My wife has her own business, and I’m blessed to have a job I love, which allows time to write.

With such blessings, it is my duty to share them as I can. Therefore, it was a joyful challenge when the bishop asked me to become the pastor of a Catholic parish in a difficult part of town. Our Lady of the Rosary is situated in the midst of the most challenging socio-economic area in prosperous Greenville, South Carolina. In the vicinity of the church, folks suffer from homelessness, drug trafficking, unemployment, and the high level of crime that goes with these social problems.

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Members of our Saint Vincent de Paul society run our food pantry every week. We bought one of the houses in the neighborhood and renovated it to be a drop-in referral center to help direct the needy to the many specialist charities and services in town. We’ve found the funding for the director, and another group of our people have started an independent charity called MercyWorks to raise funds and make grants to the various worthy causes in our area. We seek to offer relief. 

A large proportion of the low-income populations are African American, but there is also a big Hispanic contingent; homeless, transient whites; and in the wider community, an established population of white folk living in rural poverty. Adding to the mix, I found that one third of my congregation were Vietnamese. In amongst the white American Catholics were Native Americans, Filipinos, Nigerians, El Salvadorans, Indians, Poles and Chinese. 

Diversity or Division?

I am happy to be the pastor of such a diverse flock, but living where we do, the haunting reality of racism is always in the background. South Carolina has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state in the union, and when I came to the parish, I was aware not only of the large African American population living nearby, but also that few of them attended our church. 

What could we do about that? They’re not Catholic, and don’t want to be. The Church of Christ around the corner is not only the local “black church.” It is also a conservative Protestant church. They don’t hate Catholics, but they probably think we need to get saved. That’s ok—I couldn’t expect them to all become Catholics.

There were black Catholics, but they traditionally attended the parish across town where the Franciscans had arrived decades ago to minister to the poor African Americans. The Franciscans were still there, and they were ministering at what was traditionally the “black Catholic” church.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone emphasizes how much the black experience in America is linked with African American Christianity. “Black” churches are focal points not only for faith, but also for culture, identity and mission. They are also, however, a sign of the continued segregation in the south. 

When my brother and I used to attend one of the black gospel churches, we asked the pastor if we were welcome. He laughed and hugged us and said, “Brother, the white man is always welcome in the black church, but the black man is not so welcome in the white church…unless he is the janitor.” The next week, while attending a Presbyterian church in the suburbs, we were chagrined to notice that the fellow sitting in the janitor’s office was black.

Segregation or Integration?

The continued segregation in our country—especially in our churches—is the custom but not the law; but how should it be addressed? The fact of the matter is that African Americans celebrate their own culture, and are themselves divided about the virtues of integration…and understandably so.

I’ll illustrate my point through my experience with another racial minority group. When I arrived in the parish, I was welcomed by the large contingent of Vietnamese parishioners. After being a sub-group at various churches in the area, they had ended up at our parish. My predecessor was a Vietnamese Franciscan—they felt at last that they had their own church home.

However the “Anglos” (as the Vietnamese called the white Americans) were angry because they felt that they were being marginalized by the Vietnamese minority. The Vietnamese priest adopted a policy of “separate but equal.” When I came on the scene, then, I found myself leading two parish communities on one campus.

I did everything possible to integrate my Vietnamese parishioners, but now they were the ones who were feeling isolated and unappreciated. While I made every effort to involve them, their leaders resisted invitations to be involved in the parish and achieve integration. They wanted to preserve their culture, language, and unique Catholic customs. Attempts to get the “Anglos” to appreciate the Vietnamese culture were moderately successful, but mostly polite exercises in detente. Efforts to celebrate bi-lingual masses were strained for everyone involved, and at parish fellowship times the Anglos and the Vietnamese usually sat at different tables.

All along, the question was “Do we integrate or segregate?” It was impossible to do both. Forcing either integration or segregation would have been a disaster. In the end, as the leader of the parish, when asked what my plan for the Vietnamese was, I answered, “I do not have any plan except to help my Vietnamese parishioners do what they would like to do.”

Eventually the bishop resolved the conflict by granting the Vietnamese parishioners permission to establish their own parish. They did so with great energy—purchasing an old Baptist church and fixing it up with enthusiasm, creativity, and a substantial investment of time and money. Now, Our Lady of LaVang parish is thriving.

Black and White

The problem of integration or segregation echoes within the black-white racism debate. Some have blamed our parish school for being “too white.” In response, last year I consulted with black community leaders about positive steps forward. They all said, “Education, education, education.” 

So I took the small step of raising funds to provide five full scholarships for low-income racial minority families. The scholarships did not specifically target black families, because we also have a large proportion of Hispanic and other minority families in our area.

Unfortunately, it was easier to raise the $35,000 to fund the scholarships than it was to find families to apply for the school slots. The feedback we received was “that school is too white.” A second grade teacher reported a frustrating conversation he had with an African American parent. When his child was underperforming at school, the parent complained, “The problem is, not only is this school white, but the whole system is white. The tests, the education, everything is white. What we need is our own black schools.”

I understand and accept his critique. It is true that Western culture is predominantly white. It is a fact of history that the white European has been, and still is, the majority. African Americans are not only a minority; they suffer from the terrible legacy of slavery, and too often they remain members of a socio-economic underclass. But is the answer to create “black schools?” Does that perpetuate the underclass, or help to solve the problem? I don’t know.

Moving On

Now, nearly fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Had a Dream speech, I think everyone must admit that America has made progress on this issue. But for the reasons I have expressed, and any more complex difficulties, the activists remind us that there is still work to be done.

What is the way forward? I am only one old white guy. I see the problem, I’m sympathetic, but I’m not an expert. The modest efforts I’ve made to do something about the problem have so far been unsuccessful. I think it’s a good thing to help underprivileged kids and I’m going to keep trying with my scholarship idea, and working to build good relationships with the leaders of the minority communities in my area, but I don’t know how to solve the problems.

What I do know is that it is not up to me to impose solutions. The conflict with the Vietnamese was resolved when we asked them what they wanted to do. If we had imposed segregation we would have been the bad guys, and if we had imposed integration we would have been blamed for negating their culture by absorbing them. The solution was asking what they wanted to do, and assisting them to make that happen.

I suggest this is the way forward with all racial minorities—both on individual and corporate levels. If folks want to integrate and be part of the majority white culture, we welcome them and affirm their culture and heritage as part of America’s rich diversity. If they wish to maintain their culture and customs through segregation, then we work with them to that end. 

If they want to do some of both, that’s good too. Maybe instead of viewing the black churches as an example of “segregation,” we should shift our paradigm and acknowledge their value as Christian cultural centers—much like Our Lady of LaVang is for the Vietnamese.

America is a big country with a big heart. We believe in freedom and opportunity. Segregation or integration? Surely we can make room for both, as long as both are freely chosen and neither is imposed.


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