The Unsafe Church: American Religion Gone Wrong

Who decides who is safe, wanted or welcome in American churches? For Black members at predominantly white churches, a simple question can unlock uncomfortable answers. This is my story. 

It wasn’t news to me that one of the church leaders was a bigot. What caught me off-guard was how comfortably he wielded it in front of everyone else. As the words wandered from his mouth, I looked around the room to remind myself I was still, in fact, sitting in a church. 

“I don’t know what else to do. I’m busy,” he huffed, shrugging like an irritated Walmart employee before store closing. “I haven’t had time to read about racial reconciliation and social justice but I have read a book opposing them.”

We had just spent an awkward hour going around a room one by one, revealing the wrongs Black and brown people experienced at our predominantly white church. From racial profiling in the parking lot to hateful rants by white leaders – sighs, gasps and tears marked many painful recollections.

He could have thanked us for our bravery and then mocked us behind our backs. It’s essentially what the American church has been doing for 400 years. Instead, one leader decided he had a few things to get off his white chest.

“I haven’t taken our church class on racism because my schedule is so busy between small groups and my elder responsibilities. But, if you want, you can look at my schedule and see if you can find time for the class. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. Is it Critical Race Theory?”

His reckless words made one thing clear: compassion was on sabbatical. Suddenly, the private meeting meant for listening to Black voices had become a landfill for discarding them. The volcano in my chest surged as his confessions grew darker. 

“You know, I’ve had experiences with Black men. I was shot and robbed by a Black man many years ago when I was young, working at a grocery store. I didn’t hold that against him. I forgave him for that.” 

“And when a Black man sexually assaulted a woman…”

White faces flashed red. Black heads hung down as he shared yet another story about another Black man who was also a criminal. My quaking fingers folded into a fist, squeezing away the last remnants of restraint. Someone is going to stop him, right?

I tried to breathe but found only flames where my tongue used to be. My wife, Alisha, placed a hand on my leg to slow the flow of lava. A better, wiser man might have accepted her discreet invitation for diplomacy. 

His mouth moved like a guillotine, amputating our dignity as blue eyes looked on.

“We just can’t find Black men to be elders at this church,” he said, sitting in a room of Black people at a 5,000-person church. “Leaders have to be qualified. And I don’t want to be guilty of choosing a token Black man for our elder committee. Isn’t having no one better than that?”

“No! No, it’s not!” I thundered back. Lightning left my lips before I could think, rattling the room awake. I leaned forward in my seat. We locked eyes. As white supremacy stared back at me, I wondered which kind of Black man he thought I was. A robber, a rapist or simply an unqualified leader?

His words deserved my rage. Soon, he would know my resolve. 

Do You Feel Safe At This Church?

I had felt this type of hurt before but hoped it would be different this time, at this church. The original idea for the meeting-that-should-not-have-happened bloomed weeks prior when an innocent question became a hazard light. Do you feel safe at this church? 

In a moment of unexamined honesty, a handful of members on a video call responded to the question. Each answer revealed what it was like being a person of color in a predominantly white church. It was raw but it also represented the type of truth-telling necessary to till the soil of change. We swapped scars, shared stories and committed to do the same during an upcoming conversation with our church leaders, who all happened to be white men. 

Our honest feedback was intended as a love offering, helping to advance inclusion and diversity efforts within an organization not known for either. Still, I had PTSD from similar conversations in corporate circles so I was hesitant to participate. Any time you have a meeting with one group to prepare to talk to another group, fear has already taken hostages.

Though many members felt compelled, even called by God, to stay at the church, it wasn’t a place everyone felt comfortable inviting family or friends of color. So the next question was simply: Why don’t you bring your Black or brown friends?

These answers were anything but safe. The church they described was one where acceptance meant voting, singing, thinking and believing like others. Or at least pretending to.

A church where whiteness (adjacency to white culture) and rightness (proximity to Christian values) conveniently overlapped in social, moral and political matters.

A church where Black members learned how to be safer for white ones by sacrificing their own psychological safety. 

A church where the blindfolds Black people wore to ignore these cultural truths were getting harder to hand down to their children. 

What was haunting, and only observable in hindsight, is we all had the same visceral reaction when asked the question, Do you feel safe at this church? Out of all the people of different ages, ethnicities, family backgrounds, languages and religious traditions, we really only had two things in common. We were members of the same church who also happened to have brown skin. 

How could a simple question I had never asked unlock so many uncomfortable answers? I couldn’t unknow what was becoming as clear as holy water. My church was not safe. 

Black Church

My wife and I joined the church over 11 years ago. I remember walking into the freshly renovated movie theater-turned-tabernacle, hesitant about visiting a church where I was a minority. As common as that occurrence had been throughout my career, I had also grown accustomed to spending Sundays at a “Black church.” 

Black church is more than demography. It’s an ethnography of cultural and religious traditions baptized in the struggle for equality. For centuries Black churches undergirded families still reeling from the aftershocks of American discrimination, segregation and gaping inequity. For one day each week, we lived for a Kingdom we couldn’t see, declaring promises we couldn’t yet claim. We traded blue collars and minimum wage for wool suits and ceremony. Niggers and boys became Brothers, Deacons, Reverends, Pastors and Bishops – laying hold to the dignity so easily denied Monday through Friday. Hugs and handshakes replaced threats and scowls.

I grew up attending, cleaning, speaking, singing, dating and learning at Black church. It was more than a community, it was my connection to social significance. Black church was the holy hub for all the other crooked spokes in my childhood and adolescence. Before I knew about grace, Black church made sure I knew about hell. I learned how to be more like Jesus and less like the wretch I was. I learned to hate what God hates, judge how God judges and hide the things I couldn’t change.

For more than three decades, I clapped for nuptials, cried over caskets, rocked in choir stands and recited commandments in Black church. I met my wife at Black church. I worked for Black church. 

I was Black church. 

Then one day I couldn’t do Black church anymore. Mere weeks after our wedding, my wife and I sat still long enough – from both the enterprise of church and the exercise of religion – to actually listen to what God had to say. The legalism, hypocrisy, homophobia and prosperity theology started to scrape against the virtues I valued as a husband and future father. Despite the family-like bonds, the Black church we attended began to represent the very betrayal and resentment I needed to leave behind. We decided our family was ready for a new beginning. 

We didn’t go looking for white people to worship with, rather, we visited places we had heard of. But when I found myself in the brightly lit lobby of a new church in west Fort Worth, shaking pale hands and receiving pleasant smiles from friendly white folks, I was a little perplexed. Actually, I was very skeptical. I kept wondering what do they want from me? and why are they so nice to me? It was like the New Testament edition of Twilight Zone. White people scared me.

Eventually, though, my armor became obsolete. I realized I had just as much in common with Brad, Jeff and Matt at this “white church” as I had with Byron, Javon and Maurice at our Black church. Gone were the golden sanctuaries, armor bearers, hierarchy, pomp and circumstance of our particular Black church experience. Denim jeans replaced designer suits. Ministers drove Mazdas instead of Mercedes. 

I was happy to broaden my lens of what a faith community could be, looking beyond skin and tradition for truth. It was easy to envision raising my kids there as I realized all the resources and programming invested in making church entertaining, engaging and family-centered. 

It took work but I joined with an open mind. White churches in America weren’t so scary after all. Whew.

I couldn’t see what was ahead or what it would cost.

Confederate Church 

But back in the room, the church we joined a decade before was not the one I was sitting in now. Every word out of the leader’s mouth reinforced what I feared most. A confederate church had taken root right there inside the one I knew. I was witnessing two different faiths.

The confederate church wants to turn back the clock to reclaim our national identity. The Church of Christ finds her identity in God.

The confederate church wants to define who is American, who is Christian, who is safe and who is not. The Church of Christ defines all believers as brothers and sisters.

The confederate church creates patriots who value flags, firearms, money and military power as God-given rights. The Church of Christ makes disciples who love neighbors, help foreigners and serve the poor.

The confederate church believes it’s under attack by “culture” and needs to defend God. The Church of Christ believes God’s grace is big enough to fight for all of us.

Which one will win? 

As we met in the prayer room that Sunday, his words revealed the divide we prayed wasn’t there. It wrecked me. Sitting there, caught in the undertow of everything I didn’t want to know, see or admit, I remembered it all.

The preacher exclaiming “All Lives Matter” from the pulpit after Trayvon’s murder.

The teacher explaining why white men want to be around other white men instead of Black guys.

The congregation ignoring my Black family for weeks when we visited another campus of the same church.

The invitation to lead a bible class as long as it wasn’t about “that Black stuff.”

The constant conversations explaining Blackness to rooms irreversibly centered in whiteness.

The admiration for white theologians who enslaved Black Americans.

The Bible lesson comparing biblical slavery to chattel slavery.

The social posts denying systemic racism while defending racist policies.

The public condemnation of Black Lives Matter in the middle of church service only months after marching with signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”

Fragments of memories became shrapnel of truth. I no longer felt the seat beneath me as I turned to look him in the eye. I had no breath left to carry eloquent words or retort. Just the rage of betrayal and the sorrow of regret. When I shouted “No!” I was not only answering his repugnant statement about the capability of Black men, I was also answering my own question about whether my church was safe. No, no it’s not.

The hardest part was letting go of hope. It was hope that prayed for change even though it seemed conspicuously absent. It was hope that built bridges of unity while ignoring the cracks of conformity. It was hope that stayed planted in place, assuming we were committed to the same gospel. 

Ultimately, the hope that sustained me failed me because I put it in the wrong place.

None of it made sense in that moment. Staring at him, my eyes were more Malcolm than Martin because, to me, he was more Judas than Jesus. As disregard and denial spewed from his lips, I couldn’t help but wonder why he refused to do the one thing that seemed so simple – listen.

Why was he so cavalier in his stance? Why was he so comfortable defending racist ideas right there in front of Black and brown members? Why didn’t one of the other leaders protect us? 

In my heart, I believe he was hurt too. Hurt by the perception that the church he had given so much to was being exposed or attacked. Hurt by the revelation that the church had fallen much shorter of God’s glory than previously thought. Hurt by the insinuation that a church where racism exists reflects a church where racism is allowed. 

The culture of the church was being revealed, not by our best intentions, but by the worst behaviors we tolerated. He didn’t hear our stories because he was busy inserting himself into them. 

That day our voices did not meet ears that would hear, but rather hearts that were afraid. Our words challenged his very identity as a good Christian and a good leader because so much of both have been invisibly defined by whiteness. 

Some day the confederate church will die. But I decided I’m not waiting around to watch it happen this time.

Unsafe Again

This is not a story about being safe in a Black or white church. This is a story about who gets to decide what safety is in the first place. 

How often have I sought safety through acceptance, only to ignore the unsafe people I’m called to serve? 

When I walked away from the church I grew up in, what was I really leaving behind?

Why was it so convenient for me to compile all the painful experiences from a Black church and label it “bad”? Then take all the hopeful experiences from a majority white church and call it “better”? 

Neither was true. By racializing religion into people groups and assigning preferences I’m guilty of the same bigotry I accused the church elder of. I recreated my own caste system by failing to remove the speck of dust in my own eye first. Sadly, I couldn’t see what is now painfully clear one year later. All this time I’ve done something Jesus never did. I played favorites. 

For Jesus, the one person who walks away is just as important as the 99 others who stay. So he will leave the 99 safe, rule-following, goodie-two-shoes people behind to seek the one unsafe person that wanders away. He has no favorites. 

Perhaps the conversation also revealed my own confederate faith. Not built on allegiance to country or color, but on consumption and achievement. Sitting in that meeting was a painful gift. Any church, minister or member that prioritizes the needs of the 99 over the one will always be unsafe for someone. I had spent so much time trying to be in the 99 that I lost sight of the one. Then I was reminded of what it feels like to be the one again. To be unsafe again. To be an outsider again. To not be a favorite. 

But I was also reminded of the truth. Black skin or white, nothing I say or do causes God to love me less. And that is true safety.

I am grateful. As I shared in the room that day, I was willing to risk their disapproval in order to tell the truth because that’s what families do. I wasn’t an outsider casting stones, I was a brother sharing wounds. When his unguarded words grazed my untended wounds, they identified hurts I needed to heal. And hope that needed to die. 

I am blessed. I’m blessed by the lifelong church friends who have poured into me. My family is stronger and my faith surer because of our time there. I was loved, supported and included. The good overwhelmingly outweighed the bad and I pray my story nurtures a spirit of change. A flawed church is still God’s property and I’m proud of our relationships with other imperfect people. I’m excited to continue them as we all grow together in unity. If love is never-ending so is forgiveness.

I am at peace. I’m not mad at the church leaders and have enjoyed amicable conversations of healing with some since then. More importantly, I let go of the malignant need to make white supremacy comfortable in my presence. I also let go of allowing artificial divides to distract from God’s desire for me. I’m too determined to be disappointed. I’m often reminded that Church – capital “C“ – is much bigger than a single non-profit organization and my hope in her remains undeterred. 

I am forgiven. I am not the hero. I am a recipient of the grace and forgiveness I attempt to extend to others. In all fairness, one leader’s disrespect does not represent the entire organization. I’ll never forget the day one leader tearfully confessed to me, “I am a racist,” and then spent weeks reading, praying and studying with me on the road to reconciliation. I’ll never forget the men and women who made space for my story, offering their apologies and actions to be better ambassadors of love and grace. I know there are brothers and sisters still there who are leading, listening and changing with a heart for others. I will forever emulate their compassion.

I am awake. Revelations are invitations. For my family that meant moving on to a place of intentional inclusivity. We didn’t search for a better church, just a truer representation of who we want to be as Jesus followers. I decided I could no longer live or work for white acceptance. For most of my adult life I’ve unknowingly yet effectively allowed white superiority to deform my view of myself while anti-Blackness denied the very love God has given. It’s harder to find safety when you’re unsafe to yourself. I wasn’t just letting go of a white worldview, I let go of the world I created to serve myself. 

I am unsafe. I stopped getting smarter about how to be safer in white spaces. Unexamined allegiance is a bigger adversary than the enemies we see. I’m intentionally spending time with friends, family and organizations where acculturation isn’t a prerequisite for acceptance, and where excellence isn’t an entry fee for inclusion. It’s not enough to feel like I belong. I must create spaces where others can too. When I work harder to make a home for myself than I do to make others feel at home, I lose both.

Who decides who is safe, wanted or welcome in your church? Why?

We don’t have to coexist with the confederacy. Safe places for unsafe people are out there. When we can’t find them for ourselves we must make them for others. The opposite of an unsafe church isn’t simply a safe one, it’s a courageous one.

Courageous churches where my daughters’ God-given glow and spiraling curls can shine, not as symbols of “diversity“, but simply as humans worthy of love. 

Courageous churches where my son can witness women in authority using their gifts. Where Americans of all colors consciously uplift and protect Black families. 

Where Black faces are more than just a mission trip or a charity. Where Black history isn’t just a sermon series or a social post. 

Courageous churches where “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a provocative political statement but a prayer for what should be true. Where systemic racism, sexism or homophobia aren’t debates to referee or issues to ignore. 

Courageous churches where political affiliations, religious traditions and denominations become less and less essential as truth becomes more and more visible.

Courageous churches where unsafe people are celebrated because they, too, are God’s beautiful creation. I’m one of them. So are you. 

I think it’s time to ask ourselves a better unsafe question. Am I a safe place? 

Image Credits: Church by John Cafazza, Flag by David Cohen, Cross by George Bakos, Flag Closeup by Brianna Tucker, America Neon Art by Sophie

2 thoughts on “The Unsafe Church: American Religion Gone Wrong

  1. A nice piece. Well thought out and well written. Such wilful ignorance and egoistic lack of compassion needs to be called out: those who embrace it are the modern Pharisees.

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