By Xolani Kacela, Ph.D.
If you’re a White churchgoer, when was the last time you walked into your worship space, saw a Black person sitting alone, went to sit next to them, and began sharing your story? Hold that answer! Let me share part of my story with you.
When my wife passes a convertible on the road, she loves to say aloud, “You’re not the only one!” It’s a refrain she uses with humor to signify that she, too, has a convertible. I respond, “I don’t think they heard you.”
Rarely does anyone want to be the only one. Likewise, no one wants to be “that” person, whoever that person is. Usually, we use the term “that guy” when referring to someone who makes a bonehead move. But, unfortunately, even in the religious and spiritual life, there is “that” person who finds a way to break protocols and embarrass themselves or others.
Another category of “that” person we see in churches and spiritual communities is the person who is racially or ethnically out of place. “That person” would be the solo Black parishioner attending a majority white congregation.
It may strike you as abnormal that houses of worship are places where race or ethnicity is a thing, but in reality, Sunday morning in America is the most segregated hour of the week. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised our conscience about that fact back in the 1960s. But, unfortunately, little has changed since then.
As a Black pastor of a majority-White church in Las Cruces, NM, I am “that” person. I maintain this status across my denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). There are few Black UU ministers compared to the whole. I’ve become accustomed to being the only one in the room, on the Zoom call, or in the meeting with a dozen other colleagues.
Being that person frequently prompted me to write a book, The Black UU Survival Guide: How to Survive as a Black Unitarian Universalist and How Allies Can Keep it 100. Though my book’s audience began as African American UUs, I’ve come to realize that it applies to all people of faith.
It is essential for people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” and want to be a part of a multiracial spiritual community. It is for seekers reluctant to be “that” person who stands out because they’d be the only one. It is for those who long for a multicultural church.
We all want to belong. We want to fit in without causing undue attention to ourselves. We want to be a part of the in-crowd. Attaining such status, even if we didn’t do anything special, makes us feel special.
Most African American worshippers (60%) belong to African American houses of worship. Another 13% attend White congregations, and the remaining 25% go to multiracial churches. The Survival Guide helps the middle group navigate the often time choppy waters.
Why do they need help, you ask? The answer is that racism is real in houses of worship. Many might believe spiritual people naturally treat each other respectfully and equally, regardless of skin color. Some would declare, “I don’t see race or skin color.” Others are quick to say, “I’m not racist.”
Each statement probably has elements of truth, but not the whole truth. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) serving as ministers get fired more frequently than White ministers in the UU world. Few UU congregations have more than a handful of BIPOC members. Race matters.
The Survival Guide illustrates what it’s like being that BIPOC in a White spiritual community. It points out how that feels. For example, if you are a Black person in a White church, you’re likely to be there because you enjoy the sermons and find the people friendly and welcoming. But, you wonder why aren’t there more BIPOCs in the services. You wonder why White members don’t sit next to you or invite you to meet them outside the church. You’re concerned because White members don’t ask you about joining their church.
Such experiences are real. Being that person, the only Black in a White church, is lonely and off-putting. It puts you in an odd position because your parents taught you spiritual communities welcome everyone, but you don’t see all races in the space. So you don’t want to force yourself into a group that doesn’t want you. Neither do you want to give up something you enjoy, say the preaching, because people don’t welcome you. Because even without the welcome, you have the right to be there.
You’re in a Catch-22. If you stay, you risk being mistreated by neglect or lack of an explicit welcome by White members or being the victim of microaggressions. That is, people inflicting harm by committing minor offenses against you. A common microaggression is talking over Black people or ignoring them when they speak. In other words, acting like what you heard wasn’t spoken or is not worth considering.
The Survival Guide helps the one or two Black people among a church full of Whites navigate those rocky waters. It also teaches White allies how to “keep it 100.”
There are ten steps for surviving. These include, but are not limited to:
- Knowing the basics of your faith
- Keeping an open mind
- Joining the community
- Dealing with race and racism
- Finding a mentor
The book details each of these steps. It provides a clear picture of what survival looks like when you are “the only one.”
No matter what your denomination, a Black spiritual person ought to complete all ten steps.
Here’s a real-life example of keeping an open mind. Spiritual-minded Black people who attend a mostly White church expect White members to welcome them. They expect Whites to practice the church’s teachings in real-time. That includes keeping promises, being honest, and acting kindly. We don’t expect Whites to be perfect, but we do expect them to try. Why, then, would a White person ask a Black person, “How did you find us?”
Instead, the White person might begin by saying, “Welcome to the church. My name is Susan Smith. What is your name?” or “Welcome to First Baptist. I’m Susan Smith. We’re glad you’re here. Can I answer any questions you have about the church?”
By asking, “How did you find us?” there is an implication that it’s unusual for someone like me (that Black person) to walk through the doors, and when they do, it’s because they must have wandered in by mistake. Thus, the question implies the visitor of color is not wanted. Furthermore, since they are here, let’s (unconsciously) do all we can to let them know they are “that” person.
A genuine welcome also looks like this. You see a Black person sitting alone in the pews of your mostly White church. Instead of going to your usual spot, you walk over to the Black visitor, sit next to them, introduce yourself, and strike up a conversation in the same manner that you’d welcome a person who looked like you. Then, after the service, you’d exchange information and invite them out so you could get to know each other better. That would be keeping it 100!
Church attendance is declining in all denominations. Whites and BIPOCs are leaving in droves. To survive, we need all people on board. Both Blacks and Whites survival depend upon each other.
The next time you see that Black person in your mostly White spiritual community, try to keep it 100. If you are a Black seeker working your way into a White faith community, recognize it won’t be as easy as you imagine. It will likely require some work.
Together, we can reshape that person’s experience in the church house. First, we can make it a spiritual experience that meets the high expectations it deserves. Then, with intention, we can change the experience of being “that person” into a thing of the past.
You can reach Rev. Xolani Kacela at email@example.com and all social media platforms. His book, The Black UU Survival Guide: How to Survive as a Black Unitarian Universalist and How Allies Can Keep it 100, is available at all major booksellers. His website is https://revdrxk.com. Kacela’s weekly radio program, Take On Faith, airs on Saturdays at 10 am MT on lccommunityradio.org.