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A Quiet Exodus in White Evangelical Churches

FORT WORTH, Texas — Charmaine Pruitt wrote the names of 12 churches on a sheet of paper, tore the paper into 12 strips, and dropped them into a Ziploc bag. It was Sunday morning and time to pick which church to attend.

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A Quiet Exodus in White Evangelical Churches
, New York Times

FORT WORTH, Texas — Charmaine Pruitt wrote the names of 12 churches on a sheet of paper, tore the paper into 12 strips, and dropped them into a Ziploc bag. It was Sunday morning and time to pick which church to attend.

This time of the week two years earlier, there would have been no question. Pruitt, 46, would have been getting ready for her regular Saturday afternoon worship service, at a former grocery store overhauled into a state-of-the-art, 760-seat sanctuary. In the darkened hall, where it would have been hard to tell she was one of the few black people in the room, she would have listened to the soaring anthems of the praise bands. She would have watched, on three giant screens, a sermon that over the course of a weekend would reach one of the largest congregations in the country.

But Pruitt has not been to that church since fall 2016. That was when she concluded that it was not, ultimately, meant for people like her. She has not been to any church regularly since.

Pruitt pulled one of the slips out of the Ziploc bag. Mount Olive Fort Worth. OK. That was where she would go that day.

In the past couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that 11 o’clock Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America. “Racial reconciliation” was the talk of conferences and the subject of formal resolutions. Large Christian ministries were dedicated to the aim of integration, and many black Christians decided to join white-majority congregations. Some went as missionaries, called by God to integrate. Others were simply drawn to a different worship style — short, conveniently timed services that emphasized a personal connection to God.

The fruits could be seen if you looked in the right places, particularly within the kind of nondenominational megachurches that gleam from the roadsides here in the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshipping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.

Then came the 2016 election.

Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.

Then white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshippers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to NFL players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Barack Obama, claiming falsely he was not a U.S. citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.

“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.

Early last year, Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.

“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”

It has been a scattered exodus — a few here, a few there — and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage. Plenty of multiracial churches continue to thrive, and at some churches, tough conversations on race have begun. The issue has long shadowed the evangelical movement. The Rev. Billy Graham, who died last month at 99, bravely integrated the audience at his crusades and preached alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but kept silent at key moments. But for many black churchgoers, the current breach feels particularly painful. Lecrae, a prominent black Christian hip-hop artist, has spoken openly of his “divorce” with white evangelicalism, Christian counselors have talked frankly of the psychological toll of trying to hang on in multiracial churches and others have declared it time to consider the serious downsides of worship integration.

“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”

— ‘This Is What I Need’

Pruitt had been a churchgoing Christian since the mid-1990s, first joining a mostly black megachurch in Dallas, where she was on the dance team. Inspiration began to flag after some years there, and one night she was drawn to a pastor whom she saw on television. He was, she later learned, Robert Morris of Gateway Church.

Gateway started nearly 20 years ago with a prayer group in Morris’ living room, and has in the past two decades grown to become a $140 million ministry, drawing upward of 31,000 people a week to six campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The scale and thoroughness of the operation are extraordinary: the attractive ledgestone-and-wood arena — with a coffee kiosk serving a Gateway blend — at the church’s Southlake, Texas, headquarters; the worship music booming over a first-class sound system; the robust programs for children, single parents and a host of other groups.

Above all, for many members, there are Morris’ weekly messages themselves: wry, often self-deprecating, sprinkled with biblical scholarship and often affectingly personal.

“This is what I need right now,” thought Pruitt, moved to tears when she first went to orientation programs at the church. Members who happened to sit near her at worship came to ask about her when she missed a service, and some came to her grandmother’s wake. One couple began to refer to her as a daughter.

The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color. The goal, says Morris, who is white and has a black son-in-law, is to have a church that looks like heaven as described in the book of Revelation: “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

The general whiteness of the congregation is not something every black worshipper dwells on anyway. To grow up black, said Carla McKissic Smith, who started going to Gateway in 2009, is to get used to being in the minority. As the headlines of the outside world turned to police shootings and protest, little changed inside majority-white churches. Black congregants said that beyond the occasional vague prayer for healing a divided country, or a donation drive for law enforcement, they heard nothing.

Tamice Namae Spencer, who used to attend a mostly white church in Kansas City, Missouri, said her fellow congregants did not seem to even know the name Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed in Florida at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012. And when Spencer brought up his death, she said white church members asked why she was being divisive.

“It’s not even on your radar and I can’t sleep over it,” she remembered thinking. “And now that I’m being vocal, you think I’ve changed.”

At Gateway, black worshippers would discreetly ask one another if they were the only ones who noticed that one could talk about seemingly anything but racism, a feeling one former congregant described as an out-of-body experience.

Jeremiah White, who is black, was so excited about Gateway when a friend brought him there years earlier that he insisted his parents come. Now a teenager, with his parents volunteering at the church for 12-hour days on weekends, Jeremiah had also begun to notice “the little details”: an associate pastor, trying to get the attention of a black man, jokingly referring to him as the one God left in the oven a little long; a youth leader suggesting Jeremiah must be new because he was black.

In summer 2016, Jeremiah made a cartoon and sent it to church leaders, depicting an elephant sitting on a man, squeezing out his insides. The elephant was labeled “Racism”; the man’s insides were labeled “Gateway Church.”

— Politics From the Pulpit

Morris had become aware of the disquiet himself, mainly from listening to black pastors at other churches. Still, while they would meet and talk and pray, not a lot would happen.

“We didn’t talk about it much before because we didn’t know,” he said of whites generally, in a recent interview at one of Gateway’s satellite campuses. “We just thought, ‘OK there was a tremendous racial problem in America. The civil rights movement came, laws have been passed now and we’re over that now. We passed it.’ What has happened in the last few years is many white pastors are beginning to realize we never dealt with this scripturally. We never truly repented.”

In July 2016, days after a black man enraged about police brutality shot and killed five Dallas police officers, Jeremiah’s father had breakfast with one of the church’s senior pastors. He spoke to him frankly about race and his frustration with the church’s silence.

After that breakfast, church staff began discussing how to face matters directly. In meetings over the coming weeks, black staff members would talk of their own past struggles with racism and the grim parts of American history that still went unacknowledged. A pastor at Pruitt’s church campus pledged from the pulpit to tear down racism, one conversation at a time.

Then, the next month, Morris preached a message titled “Still.” It began with a series of qualifications. God is still in control. There is no perfect political candidate. Voting is choosing the lesser of evils. Yes, there is gender inequality. And yes, there is a race problem in the country, though racism, implying hate, is not the right word. Morris said it was a subtler problem of prejudice.

Then he focused attention on the upcoming presidential race.

“The election,” he said, “is extremely important.”

The country is in trouble financially; a critical Supreme Court appointment awaits; one of the major parties advocates using “taxpayer dollars, your dollars,” for abortion. Evangelical Christians sit at home on Election Days, while “those who are trying to change our Constitution” go to the polls, and look at what happens: Prayer is taken out of the schools.

“We are going the wrong way,” he concluded. “We need to get involved, we need to pray and we need to vote.”

He never said to vote for Trump. But the implication in the sermon, and in the leaflets that were handed out at church, was lost on no one: that one must vote to uphold Christian values and that the Republican Party platform reflected those values. And Trump was the Republican candidate.

Pruitt sent messages to several white couples she had befriended at the church, telling them she was going to take some time off. She had become uneasy at a church, she told them, that speaks of overcoming racism on one Sunday “and then turns around later and asks me to support” Trump, who she believed was “a racist candidate.”

One of the couples invited her to come to their house. Sitting in the living room over a plate of brownies, Pruitt explained to the wife how disturbed she had been by the clear inference from the pulpit that she should support a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric were so offensive that she could not bring herself even to say his name.

The woman explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied and handed Pruitt a two-page printout, which began: “The Spirit of God says, ‘I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.'” Obama, the woman continued, should never have been president, since he was not born a U.S. citizen. The visit ended with the woman suggesting that Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on.

Pruitt never went back. Jeremiah’s family also left for good that summer, though he has heard that pictures of them still show up in church videos. They have not found a church since.

One young black woman who had been going to Gateway for some years said she has begun exploring Ethiopian Christian traditions. Another woman, a former church staff member who still goes to Gateway, cut back her attendance from five days a week to once a month, if that, and is now praying for guidance on whether to leave altogether.

McKissic Smith stayed until one Sunday last March, when a guest speaker, a messianic rabbi from New Jersey, spoke of the 2016 election from the pulpit, saying that it “threatened to seal the acceleration of America’s apostasy,” but that Trump’s victory was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. “It was not the Russian intervention that determined it,” he said to a congregation that frequently broke into applause and cheers. “The intervention was a bit higher.”

Three months later, Smith’s father, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Dallas, would introduce a resolution condemning the “alt-right” at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix. Unlike the resolutions condemning gambling and Planned Parenthood, his alt-right resolution didn’t make it out of committee.

McKissic was told that racism had been adequately addressed by the Southern Baptists, that the resolution was inflammatory and that sympathy for the alt-right was not an issue in the church. Word leaked, embarrassing the convention, and a new version of the resolution was reintroduced and overwhelmingly passed, albeit with some language changed and with an added tally of the Southern Baptists’ past efforts against racism.

“At that point,” Smith said, “I was no longer surprised.”

Trump’s win, which one elder at Gateway described as a “supernatural answer to prayer,” generated a frisson of excitement at the church. Morris told the congregation that he was one of Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017.

Jelani Lewis, one of the two black campus pastors, knew this was creating unease among many black members of Gateway. A black deacon approached him at one point and asked how he should reconcile his trust in Morris with “some of the things that I’m seeing from the current president.” We trust in God, Lewis assured him, and we can trust in the heart of our pastor.

— ‘A Lack of Understanding’

As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.

“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”

In October, he preached a message titled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis, Illinois, in the 1960s. Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.

The response, Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive,” and indeed the reaction on Facebook suggests as much. Lewis remembers a black woman weeping in her seat, and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshippers questioning how their church truly felt about racism.

On Facebook some white congregants were angered at the sermon, especially at the focus on white people as the root of the problem.

“I believe Robert spoke from his flesh in this message,” one of them, Steve Groebe, later recalled in a Facebook message. “I gave him another week to correct the message and make it biblical. I didn’t feel he did that so I left the church.”

The message was not better received among the black worshippers who had already left the church. It did not, several said, address the enduring structural legacy of racism, instead adhering to the usual evangelical focus on individual prejudice. Most significantly, they said, it gave no sense that Morris had ever wrestled with his support of Trump.

“I wasn’t wrestling,” Morris said of his feelings in 2016, going on to explain that he was not wrestling now, either. “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.” There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.

“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”

There is now a team at the church focused exclusively on making the church more diverse. On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a 49-second video of excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was played at worship services — “a monumental moment in Gateway church history,” one pastor said, the first time that the day had been acknowledged. — The Inheritance

When Pruitt arrived at Mount Olive, the service had begun, with a 26-person choir singing a gospel hymn, accompanied by a drummer and a man on a Hammond organ. This was one of the first churches she had attended for worship in a year and a half. She had kept giving tithe money to Gateway for some months after she stopped going, but after learning about the inaugural ball, started donating to another church. On most Sundays she had stayed at home, watching services online.

The sanctuary at Mount Olive was brightly lit, and the one video screen advertised an essay contest for Black History Month. The congregation was older and more formally dressed than those of many megachurches. But for two young white men, all the worshippers were African-American.

The Rev. William Timothy Glynn, wearing a sharply knotted necktie and a silk pocket square, began his message, on Elisha’s taking up the mantle of the prophet Elijah. It was less a sermon, he acknowledged, and more a collection of observations; among them was that we inherit things from the past for a reason, and thus should not quickly discard them.

“We live in this day where they want to throw what grandma had out the window; that’s old and that’s fogy and we don’t have church like that no more, and we don’t like that no more, amen?” Glynn half sang. “Have you ever thought about what their religion got them through? It got them through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, from the back of the bus to the front of the bus. It brought them through everything anybody could throw and that’s all they had. It built churches and schools and hospitals. Millions? They didn’t have thousands! They had nickels and dimes!”

Service ended in just under two hours. Pruitt needed to go pick up her mother, who was finishing her shift as a police dispatcher. On the way she drove out of Fort Worth, past a little community founded by a group of emancipated slaves, near the headquarters of an international ministry run by a Gateway elder. Then, with her mother, she went back to the house they share in a quiet neighborhood named after a Confederate major.

The next week Pruitt considered the other 11 churches on the list, and on Sunday, she tried someplace new.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.