In 1968, Harlem evangelist Tom Skinner wrote Black and Free, his autobiography which chronicled, amongst other things, his understanding of racism in the U.S. and his more recently acquired belief in Jesus Christ. In discussing the way that white evangelical churches furthered segregation within his context Skinner wrote a scathing assessment of their calloused actions toward African-Americans:
Wherever the Negroes have moved in, whites have packed up and moved out. They take with them their evangelical churches and witness. So today we’re finding ourselves with large cities heavily populated by minority groups, but no sound, evangelical Gospel to preach them at all.
And what about this man who claims that Jesus Christ is the answer? With heart tinged with emotion, he packs his bags and takes the next boat to Africa, to reach the black man with the Gospel. He spends millions of dollars to reach the black man. He crosses the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, he flies, he goes through all kinds of sacrifices; he’ll contract malaria; he’ll get shot; he’ll lose his own children in order to go to the mission field to reach the black man in Africa with the Gospel. But he won’t cross the street.
He won’t spend a quarter to go to the other side of town to reach a group of people with the same black skin, who are nowhere near as primitive, and where there is no language barrier.
To the shame of the so-called white, evangelical, conservative Christian in the United States, he does not support financially, morally, spiritually or in any other way, works that are attempting to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the Negro in America.
There is virtually no attempt to reach this vast number of black people in America who are hopeless, frustrated and want a way out. (30-31)
Though it would be comforting to think that Skinner’s assessment is no longer prophetic for this day and age, his message is very applicable. The church in the U.S. has become more aware of it’s racialized ways, but churches and neighborhoods are still very segregated by race and socio-economic status. Not only are they segregated, but segregation within the church continues to inadvertently lead to a more segregated society.
If taken seriously, Skinner’s critique leads to the conclusion that white Christians in the U.S. can not faithfully proclaim a “good news” of Jesus’ defeat of sin when we are sinning by separating ourselves by race and socio-economic status. What results with the acceptance and justification of segregated churches is a Gospel that is powerless to unite human enemies. A segregated Gospel undermines the message of God’s reconciliation with his enemies through his son, because his children aren’t even on right terms with each other. In other words, God’s unity with his people is undermined since his people are not unified with each other.
It is my firm belief that white Christians are called to take the initiative in repairing the sins of our past and present. This can be started through once again becoming neighbors with those that we have run from, seeking their forgiveness and genuine friendship and using our ill-gotten power to attempt to rebuild what we have corporately stolen- the self-determination of African-Americans. Since white Christians have brought about slavery, Jim Crow, de-facto segregation, institutionalized racism and other forms of bigotry and then run from our sin by preaching the Gospel overseas instead of across the street, I believe that it is time that we attempt to repair our own city’s and proclaim freedom to the captives both black and white.