Black Believer in a White Church

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By Michael Crumpler

The White Church, as opposed to The Black Church, is a peculiar place. What exactly is it? If The Black Church is the seed of black liberation, what is The White Church? I grew up in The Black Church, although I did not know it at the time. Growing up, it was just church. It was where we went on Sunday…to pray, to praise, to repent, to forgive and be forgiven. There were ushers, a choir, the amen corner, the deacon board, and the preacher. It was as familiar as the classroom, the lunchroom, and the playground. We knew we were black. We knew we were at church. But we never referred to ourselves as The Black Church. To us, we were just church.

I didn’t learn about The Black Church until I started attending The White Church. I was 19. I had enlisted in the Air Force. I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior after hearing the preaching of a white chaplain while attending chapel in basic training. It wasn’t a black church, it wasn’t a white church, but it was chapel. I was inspired, I was convicted, I repented, I was redeemed.

When a white airman who had had a similar experience invited me to church, I went. As soon as I entered, I knew it was The White Church. There were no black people. I had never been to a church where there were no black people. The next Sunday morning, I wondered, Will I go back to The White Church, or shop around for regular (black) churches? I went back to The White Church….again and again. I joined The White Church, where I was weekly inspired, convicted, repented, and redeemed.

There were other experiences. As a black man at The White Church, I had to learn new music. I had to learn new rhythms. I had to learn new frames of reference...all white. It wasn’t bad music, rhythms, or references...but it was all white. Because it was church, I embraced it as good. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”…good. Singing while standing still...proper. Martin Luther (not King, Jr.)…revered. None of which, had I experienced in The Black Church.

In The White Church, I learned that I could preach. I learned that I could teach. As a black preacher/teacher in The White Church, I was exceptional and unique...and I felt called to leave the Air Force to enroll in a Bible college and prepare for ministry. It was there that I learned about The Black Church. Yes, my white religious education taught me about The Black Church. It taught me that my Black Church experience was the anomaly and The White Church the norm. Sadly, I believed it.

The Black Church is by definition a strange place in that its very existence developed in the context of the trauma, abuse, death, and horror of chattel slavery. The Black Church is a space of survival. It is the ground of all black being. It is the cornerstone of black viability. It is where generations of the African diaspora have found reliance and strength amid white American terror. As such, what is The White Church? What is the White Church for white people and what is The White Church for black people?

For me, it was a space of peace, a space where I believed all people could gather in solidarity. I believed it to be a place where people gather together under a common creed--not black, not white...not rich, not poor, but redeemed. I thought The White Church would be a colorful place where all races would gather together under One Lord, One Baptism, One Cup.

This is not the case.

In my experience, The White Church has been a constant mix of gladness and grief. I have loved the relaxing community and have appreciated the casual spirit of worship as expressed in the “come as you are” ethos. I love how The White Church has a way of anointing the secular and humanizing the sacred. The Black Church preached against my jeans, my gayness, and my rock music. The White Church welcomed and celebrated those things. In The Black Church, holiness and order are held in the highest regard. In The White Church kindness and politeness are the golden rule. For me, as a rebel and a queer, The White Church appealed to my effort to be the best version of whoever I wanted to be. And despite the cultural and racial dissonance, I find that to be extremely comforting. That feeling of bringing my personality and my sexuality into the church and having it affirmed and celebrated is precious and sacred. And for that reason, I have learned to tolerate The White Church with all its flaws and failings.

But, what about The Black Church? For me, The Black Church is really just church. It’s my home church. It’s the church of my heritage, the church of my ancestors, the root of my liberation, and the anchor of my soul. Whoever I am and all that I will ever be will forever be informed by The Black Church. For me, The Black Church is not a place, but a “charge to keep I have.” Its flaws and faults are not for me to condemn, for, whatever they might be, they are but byproducts of the larger white culture, The White Church that diminishes all that is black and privileges all that is white.

Rev. Michael J. Crumpler is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and serves as LGBTQ and Intercultural Programs Manager at the Unitarian Universalist Association. He lives in Harlem and is very active in social justice ministry at the historic Judson Memorial Church of New York City and the surrounding queer community. He is most passionate about intersectional ministry centered in blackness, queerness, HIV/AIDS, economic justice, and emotional well-being.