Two Nations Under God

Only 7 percent of the nation's churches are integrated.

September 10, 2008, 7:17 PM

— -- Nowhere is the country's racial divide more obvious, more blatant, than inside its houses of worship.

Every Sunday parishioners head to their respective churches, the vast majority of which are filled with worshippers predominately of one race. Only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated, according to the Pew Center.

It's a harsh statistic for a nation that has its first viable minority candidate with a shot at the White House, and decades after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education knocked down the notion that "separate but equal" was constitutional.

"I don't think we segregate on purpose. Where you build a strong faith base in, you just kind of cling to that church," said African-American churchgoer Monica Boudouin.

"You go into a society that's all white, you're gonna typically have an all-white church, and vice-versa with other ethnicities as well," said white parishioner Jeff Thomas.

According to an ABC News/USA Today poll, only 11 percent of African-Americans believe racial equality has been achieved, while 44 percent of blacks doubt it will ever occur. Thirty-nine percent of whites said they believe America has racial equality.

But some are trying to break the racial barrier housed in so many churches. Ohio pastor Cliff Biggers takes his black congregation out of its comfort zone to a white church every fifth Sunday. Often times Biggers and his congregants are given a warm welcome, inviting visitors to meals and fellowship. But sometimes the response can be less than enthusiastic.

"I think people are a little put back, sure. You have people walking in that, number one, you don't know them; number two, they look different than you," Biggers said.

"We all have a need to cry. We all have a need to laugh. We all have hope for tomorrow," he added. "We're more alike than we are unalike."

Biggers' bold experiment highlights just how much race relations and religion are intertwined in America.

"The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America," Barack Obama said in speech he gave in Philadelphia last March.

The first black churches were built by freed slaves and many of them where open to whites on principle, but Jim Crow laws brought fresh division and wounds.

"They had to sit in that last pew and if a white would come and families would come, even though they were in that pew they had to get up and give them their pew," said Sister Eva Regina Martin, mother superior at Holy Family Sisters in New Orleans.

The result: both races withdrew into their own spiritual harbors. The church became the only place where a black man and a voice and would give birth to the civil rights movement.

But churches have sought to mend their fractured past. Thirteen years ago the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its history of racism.

"We apologized to our African-American brothers and sisters for the pain and the suffering that we have caused," said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Now Southern Baptists claim 750,000 new members of color.

Voter results on Nov. 4 will determine if results mimic what occurs in America's churches on Sundays, but Martin has expressed hope.

"It'll take many years but I think as the years go by people will allow people just to be. And to allow them to I think that deep sense of respect has to always be there and the idea of forgiveness, you can't hold onto hatred. It'll just tear you apart," said Martin, who is the head of just one of three black orders of nuns.

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