For most of us, segregated schools are a shameful part of the past that has been rightfully relegated to the history books. For students and families in the small town of Cleveland, Mississippi, however, a reality that should have ended with their grandparents continues on to this day. The segregation is not an official mandate but rather a function of the larger division within a city where the black and white communities are mostly separated by the train tracks running through the heart of the town.
Fortunately, following a fifty-year legal battle, a federal court has ordered Cleveland to consolidate their junior high and high schools to end the system of functional segregation. So, some sixty-two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, the city’s students will finally have a chance to get an equal education.
Lest we read this story and conclude that the matter is now settled, however, it could be helpful to know that just because Cleveland, Mississippi is in the news today doesn’t make its situation unique. The number of overwhelmingly non-white schools, where less than one in ten students is white, tripled nationwide between 1991 and 2007. The kind of segregation seen in Cleveland is a problem throughout the country, with states like New York and California in a similar position to the southern locales where one might expect to find this sort of problem.
As a report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project explains, “the ironic historic reality is that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court supported very demanding desegregation standards for the South, while the interpretation of Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation limited the impact of Brown [v. The Board of Education] in the North and West.” Essentially, segregation is often less a problem in the regions on which the Court focused following the landmark case. Those areas that were deemed less problematic were given greater freedom in interpreting and implementing the new laws, which is why they often suffer from functional segregation as much or more as those southern regions today.
Many people would say our churches have a similar problem. The critique that Sundays are the most segregated day of the week is frequently offered by those looking to point out the church’s flaws and, to some extent, they are right to do so. Racism is a problem in many American churches because it’s a problem in America. While we would hope that Christians could do better considering the degree to which we all benefit from the fact that God shows no preference among race, class, gender, or any of the other factors that so often divide us, that is not always the case.
There is no doubt that we can and need to do better in this regard, but is the solution really so simple as to start worshiping together on Sunday mornings? I really don’t think it is. People are naturally going to lean towards spending time with those who share similar interests, backgrounds, and points of view. It’s why we have so many denominations and a why I pass five churches on my eight mile drive each morning.
No, that tendency to worship with those who are like us only becomes a problem when it prevents us from worshiping with those who are different. That’s why it’s so important, however, to remember that we are all ultimately working for the same God. Whatever our race, background, interests . . . we share a common mission and have to be able to work with one another to see it through (Matthew 28:16–20).
Moreover, our tendency to stay closest to people who are like us is also the reason we need to be intentional about looking for opportunities to work with those who are different in fulfilling that mission. Whether it’s community outreach, volunteer work, revivals, or anything else we can do together to advance God’s kingdom, we should be constantly looking for ways to move beyond our natural boundaries, whatever they may be, to work with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
God may lead your church to start that process with Sunday mornings and, in many cases, that is perhaps something that should be discussed as we need to be absolutely certain our churches are welcoming and open to everyone who walks through our doors. But if it doesn’t carry over to the rest of the week then what will it really accomplish? God’s community is an eclectic one and it’s alright for that diversity to create a number of options for where we go to worship each weekend. We just have to make sure that diversity doesn’t create the kind of division that would prevent us from working with one another to further his kingdom.
So is there anything keeping you from working with those who are different to accomplish God’s goals today? Whether it’s issues of race, personality, or anything else that diversifies us, nothing should prevent us from seeking out opportunities throughout the week to work together to help share God’s message of salvation with the lost around us. Will you?