In light of recent events in Charlottesville, VA, it is worth calling to mind (yet) again, remarks by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in December 1963. He was asked: “Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means?” He replied: “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this.”*
We cite this observation repeatedly, and it becomes trite or banal or cliché. We repeat it, however, because it remains stubbornly accurate. This past Sunday, many Christians heard the Isaian characterization of the Jerusalem Temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7). The distribution of different racial and ethnic groups across the United States is not uniform, of course. We cannot have uniform proportional representation of all ethnic groups in each parish any more than an average family can really have 2.3 children. Nevertheless, Christians can and should ask whether their houses of prayer are truly welcoming places for believers drawn from “all peoples.”
It is worth noting, I think, that each of the synoptic gospels puts these words on the lips of Jesus (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46) and that in each case, Jesus adds a line from Jeremiah about turning the Temple into a “den of robbers.” Jesus was no doubt referring to the rates of exchange used by the money-changers in the Temple district and perhaps as well to sellers charging exorbitant prices for animals and grains to be offered in sacrifice. Yet when our houses of prayer are not indeed houses of prayer for all people, do they not also become dens of robbery, denying to the “others” their dignity and worth?
I want to avoid mere tokenism, of course, but could each and every parish (whether majority Caucasian, majority Hispanic or majority black) think about making use at least on occasion of songs with (some) lyrics in Spanish or drawn from the rich heritage of African-American spirituals? We run into limits here as well: for example, according to its website the archdiocese of Los Angeles offers ministry and worship in 42 languages. Asking any one parish to employ 42 languages would be impractical to say the least.
Yet the “normal” with which we now live is a problem. As Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn has put it, “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”**
I invite your thoughts.