There were only 310,000 interracial marriages in the United States, in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today that number is more than 3 million. Even though black/white interracial couples still tend to face more hostility than other racial pairings, these couples are increasing in number as well. Since the legalization of interracial marriage occurred in 1967, the Census Bureau reports that the number of African American-European American marriages has tripled from 65,000 in 1970 to about 200,000 in 2000.
In the past, the church has not done a good job of ministering to multiracial families. But with the emerging growth of this population, it is becoming important that we find ways to reach out to these families. If you minister in an area that has a high number of interracial couples, ignoring them is not an option.
Even if there are not a lot of interracial families in your area today, you can expect to see such families in your church soon due to the increasing racial diversity in our society. It is becoming vital that we learn how to care for this emerging population and to find ways to welcome them into our ministries. The scriptures are clear as to the proper biblical response to interracial marriage (see “Crossing Cultures,” page 40), but what are the common denominators among churches that provide a welcome home to interracial families?
To find out, we interviewed both partners of five church-attending black/white interracial couples throughout the United States. We decided to concentrate upon black/white couples because they tend to face more stigma than other interracial couples. However, we suspect that the lessons we learned from these couples can apply to other types of interracial unions.
According to the couples interviewed, discussing racial history was the first step toward creating an environment within the church that supports interracial marriages. Many churches tend to sweep racial issues under the carpet. However, because individuals in black/white marriages are forced to confront racial issues on a regular basis, ignoring those issues does not offer them much comfort.
Both men and women reported that churches must be more aggressive in creating settings where church members can feel safe in expressing their opinions about racial issues. According to John (For privacy's sake, names of the participants have been changed.), discussing race relations between blacks and whites would prevent the racial separation of Christians, ultimately drawing them closer together:
The church has the same problem as the world in terms of racism and separation. Therefore, it has to be addressed with the same aggressiveness as we strive for equal rights. As some have said, “We'll either learn how to live together or die together.
Admitting that racism and prejudice exist in religious environments is seen as a prerequisite for unifying black and white Christians within the church. Creating an atmosphere that encourages open expression of personal opinions makes members feel comfortable expressing their agreements and disagreements about sensitive issues such as race and interracial relationships.
Action point: Examine how you can promote open dialogue on racial issues in our society. Don't assume that such a dialogue will happen naturally.
Couples asserted that church integration factors into their worship experience. Many respondents stated that belonging to a multiracial church afforded them opportunities to positively interact and form healthy bonds with members of other races. William spoke about the disadvantage of attending an all-black or an all-white church:
You miss out on something ... something that may be a mystery to some people because, not having an opportunity to mingle with other people, you tend to stay disassociated.
Many couples in this study argued that their relationships were godly unions and thus did not want their marriages put on display. For this respondent, being a member of an interracial congregation was comforting and indirectly helped the church support his interracial marriage.
Because the couples we interviewed were satisfied with their churches' push toward multiculturalism and/or their appreciation of diversity, they were free to worship peacefully in what they perceived was a loving and safe environment. They were thankful that their leaders made genuine efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere for members of all races, and, thus, felt they could easily identify churches that did not make that same effort to celebrate racial diversity. Thomas spoke of his family's experience when visiting a church:
We definitely have experienced adversity being at different churches where we can sense, directly and indirectly, that diversity was not valued-or even disliked. For instance, our children were at a particular event of a church, and one of the children threw a ball and yelled at one of our kids, “Go get the ball, N----r.”
To the degree that it is possible, churches that can racially diversify their congregations would become more attractive to interracial families seeking a church home.
Action point: Find ways to make your congregation more racially inclusive. This may mean intentional efforts to support and celebrate racial cultures that are not of the numerical majority.
Couples believed that after discussing racial histories between blacks and whites, leaders in Christian churches should concentrate on issues that both groups can agree upon, rather than their differences. As expressed repeatedly throughout the interviews, the most important commonality between black and white Christians is their faith.
Couples in this study asserted that their churches were creating positive environments for developing friendships between members of all races. They believed that members in their congregations had positive attitudes about getting to know them and accepting their interracial unions.
While it is important to deal with potentially divisive racial issues, these couples also were hungry to find racial agreement as well. Susan reveals this desire: Our pastor is very intentional about saying, “Let's not talk about where we're different; let's talk about where we're the same. ... Let's focus on where we do agree.” I believe this helps-and it reveals his heart.
Perhaps because churches they attended attempted to find the commonalities between racial groups, negative interactions with church leaders and/or church members were not common experiences with our interracial couples. For example, Lillian, who attends a predominately black church, commented on her church's acceptance of her husband, Calvin:
I'm sure that some people at our church might have been pleased if I had found a black man, but once they got to know him-we dated for six years-they adored him. By the time the fourth year came around, they couldn't wait for us to get married. I think it was just a matter of them knowing him so well that they didn't see him as the white guy that the pastor said I was dating anymore. ... They loved him.
Her comments show that while it is important to deal with racism, ministries cannot merely discuss the negative consequences of racism but must also focus on how Christians of different races can come together.
Action point: Discuss the common joys and struggles that Christians of all races face, as well as the struggles that particular racial groups may encounter.
Healthy relationships between pastors and church members were attributed to the couples' churches' conscious efforts to follow principles communicated within the Bible.
In fact, one white woman attributed the rejection that she and her spouse felt in some churches they had visited to a perception that those churches were not following an authentic Christian ethic.
Interracial couples commented on the responsibility of church leaders and charged leaders with the duty of creating an atmosphere in the church where members understand the uniqueness of a biracial couple, and are free to celebrate interracial marriages and multiculturalism. According to Calvin, church pastors who do not support interracial couples should not be in a leadership position:
Some people are really hard on homosexuals or adulterers, but what about white folks who take the Bible and try to find passages that justify their racism? It's abusing the Word of God, and I think that they'll eventually have to pay for that. Pastors who object to interracial marriage should seriously study the Word. I believe a careful reading of scripture is clear in its support of interracial marriage.
As many respondents stated, obeying teachings in the Bible should supersede racism and stereotypes that exist in the church. These couples believe that if Christians merely follow the Word of God, then they would naturally support interracial couples.
Action point: Search the Bible to find support for multiracial couples. This will be appreciated by interracial couples-and will help you address any racism effectively from the pulpit with biblical authority, not merely personal opinion.
We have endeavored to give black-white interracial couples an opportunity to discuss race relations within their Christian churches and possible ways for creating environments where persons in an interracial marriage would feel support.
Like anyone else, people in multiracial families want to know that they are loved and supported by their communities of faith. They also want to know that issues that are important to their families are addressed in their congregations-not swept under the carpet.
These themes may be seen as ways in which a church can communicate this type of love, support and care for issues pertinent to multiracial families. Although we only concentrated upon black/white couples, the four principles should serve as an excellent starting point for ministers who want to reach out to interracial couples of all types.
The Key Players
The following will provide some background information on our survey respondents. We used pseudonyms to protect their identities:
Michael (40 years old and white) and Susan (45 years old and black) Banks: Nondenominational, attend a predominately white church every Sunday
William (51 years old and black) and Leigh (48 years old and white) Brooks: Baptist, attend a multiracial church every Sunday
John (71 years old and black) and Carol (74 years old and white) Davis: Baptist, attend a predominately black church three to four Sundays a month
Thomas (47 years old and white) and Rachael (44 years old and black) Lewis: Nondenominational, attend a multiracial church every Sunday
Calvin (25 years old and white) and Lillian (26 years old and black) Nelson: Baptist, attend a predominately black church every Sunday.
What the Bible really says about interracial marriage
Someone might argue that since God commanded the ancient Israelites not to intermarry with other peoples, God is against interracial marriage today. Such an interpretation could not be further from the truth.
To be sure, God warned Israel not to marry pagans (see Deut. 7:3; and compare Samson's liaisons with the Philistines), but the point of the prohibition was religious, not racial (see Deut. 7:4). Solomon's wives turned his heart away after pagan gods because those were the gods they worshiped (see 1 Kin. 11:8).
Further, a major theme in the New Testament is that Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles join Christ's body through faith, and our unity in Christ counts more than anything that can separate us. Whether the message is the new temple (see Eph. 2:14-22); surmounting a segregated lunch counter (see Gal. 2:11-14); the Jerusalem church welcoming Gentiles (see Acts 11:18, 15:19-31); or representatives from all peoples in heaven (see Rev. 5:9, 7:9), cross-cultural reconciliation is God's idea.
Crossing cultures to fulfill God's plan is one of the major reasons that God gave us the Spirit (see Acts 1:8)-so much so that at least three times in Acts He confirmed the Spirit's coming by believers praising God in other peoples' languages (see Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6).
The Bible offers many examples of godly interethnic marriages. Joseph's exaltation included marriage to an Egyptian priest's daughter (see Gen. 41:45); Moses' deliverance included marriage to a Midianite priest's daughter (see Ex. 2:21). When his own sister later complained that Moses had married a Cushite woman, who was black, God temporarily struck Miriam white with leprosy as a punishment (see Num. 12:1, 10).
Further, although Jewish genealogies in Matthew's day normally emphasized the purity of one's Israelite ancestry, Matthew specifically highlights the ethnically mixed character of Jesus' royal line. Whereas most genealogies included only males, Matthew includes four women (three ancestors of David and the mother of Solomon): Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab from Jericho, Ruth from Moab and the widow of Uriah the Hittite (see Matt. 1:3-6). Paul's helper Timothy came from a mixed marriage (see Acts 16:1-3), yet his Jewish mother was very devout (see 2 Tim. 1:5).
Prejudice against ethnically (as opposed to religiously) mixed unions did not originally stem from the Bible; it was read into the Bible by people with more sinister motives. Slaveholders in the United States initiated laws forbidding such unions.
Although many light-skinned African Americans throughout U.S. history demonstrate that such laws were often ignored in practice, these laws' lasting legacy carried over into statutes and prejudices against interracial marriage. This prejudice derives not from Scripture but from the history of U.S. slavery.
Crossing cultures presents challenges, especially in marriage. Nevertheless, Christian unity across cultures, including in marriage, offers a special evidence of God's power in surmounting such barriers.
Craig S. Keener is a charismatic New Testament scholar and the author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. His wife, Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, is from Africa.
Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person (InterVarsity Press, 2002), by Sundee Tucker Frazier.
This is an excellent resource for multiracial Christians and those who want to understand them. Frazier takes us on a personal journey of how she developed a healthy multiracial, Christian identity and encourages other multiracial individuals to find real wholeness in Christ in the appreciation of their multiracial identities. We highly recommend this book for ministers who want to understand the social, racial and spiritual issues multiracial individuals deal with.
Cross-Cultural Marriages and the Church: Living the Global Neighborhood (Hope Publishing House, 1995), by Lawrence Driskill.
Examines cross-cultural and international marriages as much as interracial unions, with several stories of such marriages. A good number of the marriages in this book are interracial and the book may be useful for finding positive and negative examples of such marriages. However, there is little practical advice offered by Driskill in this book as he chooses to teach us through these stories.
Just Don't Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage and Parenting (Judson Press, 2003), edited by George A. Yancey and Sherelyn Whittum Yancey.
Contains the works of several Christian ministers, scholars and multiracial individuals on the theological, social and practical issues facing interracial families, as well as the experiences of members of those families. Contains chapters on multiracial dating, transracial adoption, biological notions of race and the history of interracial relationships.
One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches (Intervarsity, 2003), by George A. Yancey.
Based on data from a landmark Lilly Endowment study of multiracial churches across America, this volume offers insights and implications for church leadership, worship styles, conflict resolution and much more. An essential resource for pastors and church leaders committed to cultural, ethnic and racial reconciliation in their congregations.
United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford University Press, 2004), by Curtiss Paul Deyoung, et al.
A critical account of the theological arguments in favor of racial separation, as voiced in the African American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American, and white contexts. The authors respond in detail, closing with a foundation for a theology suited to sustaining multiracial congregations over time.
Mixed Messages (Moody Press, 1991), by Fred and Anita Prinzing.
The Prinzings are a white couple who had two children marry African Americans. They wrote the first Christian book that deals with issues of interracial families, with incredible honesty and truth. Unfortunately, it is currently out of print, but it is worth searching for as it can help pastors understand Christian white families with children that date and marry blacks.
George Yancey is associate professor of sociology at University of North Texas, and the author of One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches (InterVarsity Press, 2003) that addresses strategies that churches can use to become more multiracial.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Tenesha L. Few is a residential counselor assisting persons with mental retardation and is pursuing graduate studies in psychology.
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