The Trouble with Normal

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.




  1. I don’t want to make it sound like the “segregated hour” is *only* a Protestant phenomenon, but it’s not the same in Catholic parishes. Sunday Mass is generally one of the more ethnically diverse hours of my week (at least as measured by who’s in the room with me). Now, as a priest who’s doing academic work at an elite university, my experience may not be entirely standard, but I don’t think I’m the only one who encounters more ethnic diversity at Mass than at my ‘day job.’ I think the question might need to be more about actual integration with the people we worship with.

  2. My next door neighbor is a deacon at one of Chicago’s largest African-American parishes, and served on Cardinal George’s advisory board for cultural diversity. The first time we discussed this topic, he told me that at his parish nobody was asking “Why aren’t there more white folks here?” and wringing their hands.

    I don’t mean to be dismissive – and I’m glad that you’re not suggesting tokenism is a solution. This is a deep and complex issue; facing and addressing the attendant issues of this most segregated of hours (economic inequality, for example) needs to be a partner activity.

    I’ve also come to learn that not all African-Americans are thrilled about preserving the heritage of the slavery-era spirituals in worship; they’re something of musical Confederate monuments.

  3. I think it is undoubtedly true that in many places and parishes there are the “Anglo” Masses, the “Hispanic” Masses, the “Vietnamese” Masses, the “African-American” Masses, etc.

    With that stipulated, are we sure that this has something to do with these groups being unwelcoming to other races or “outsiders?”

    Couldn’t it simply be that most people like to associate with people who are like them? And that they make that choice no matter how welcoming a group of another race or culture may be?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.