Multiracial congregations offer different social ties

August 12, 2006

Multiracial congregations that are slowly forming across America have the potential to improve race relations outside the church as well as inside, according to Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson.

Although Sunday morning is sometimes labeled as "the most segregated hour of the week" because racial separation in Christian religious congregations remains the norm, multiracial congregations serve as bridge organizations that gather and facilitate cross-racial friendships, Emerson said.

He will discuss the findings from his new book, "People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States," Aug. 12 at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, during a session titled "Not Your Father's Weekly Worship: Studying Multicultural Religious Congregations." Emerson spent seven years collecting data about racially mixed churches.

"The social ties among people in multiracial congregations are dramatically different from those of other Americans," said Emerson, a professor of sociology at Rice. He noted, for example, that only 36 percent of members of multiracial congregations said all or most of their friends are the same race as they are; this is significantly lower than the 83 percent of same-race congregations and 70 percent of nonmembers of congregations who said they and all or most of their friends are the same race.

Attitudes toward other races are different in multiracial congregations also. Members told Emerson that they felt accepted and weren't stared at; they saw other interracial couples and didn't have any explaining to do -- they felt at home. "Whites in these congregations are more likely to support racial diversity and be more open to immigration," Emerson said. "They're also less likely to be upset if one of their children intermarries."

Worshipping together can be emotionally binding because relationships and identities are not only expressed but also produced, he said. Encountering other cultures' rituals, music, dress, language, greetings, gender roles and other differences can be difficult and even divisive. Some members will leave and seek the comfort of same-race congregations, but others will become what Emerson refers to as "Sixth Americans" - people who are members of one of the five standard racial groups (white, African-American, Asian, Hispanic or American-Indian) but cross boundaries and spend significant portions of their lives with other racial groups. "They avoid spending their time with members of just one racial group - they create a network that goes out to others," Emerson said.

His new book is based on data collected from more than 2,500 phone interviews, hundreds of written surveys and extensive visits to multiracial congregations. "One of the things we find in multicultural congregations is an incredible difference in the breadth and depth of racial ties," Emerson said.

He said that as a congregation starts to become multiracial, some original members may not be happy at first and will feel that they are losing something as the traditional service changes. "But then they have a conversion point, and they say they could never go back to an all-same-race church," Emerson said. "They see God in a bigger way and have friends that they never would have had."

Currently 93 percent of congregations in the U.S. are uniracial, which sociologists define as a membership comprised by 80 percent or more of one racial group. The transformation to a multiracial congregation is not an easy process, and difficulties and conflicts can occur if not enough attention is given to the unique dynamics that result from multiracial groups in the same organization. Misuse of power that favors certain spiritual and racial projects over others can result in the same racial inequality that the congregation is trying to avoid.

Emerson noted that both multiracial congregations and race relations must be understood as a series of steps. "Within a nation, equality will not be achieved, injustices will never fully be faced, and healing will not take place until diverse peoples can live with each other, in the same spaces," Emerson wrote in his book. "Sixth Americans in multiracial congregations may be "harbingers of what is to come for the future of race relations."

Rice University

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