Gospel music; white people
April 20, 2013 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Working out how race factors in in this particular question I'm thinking about - details inside.

I was walking by a church in my town about a week ago, and could see and hear through the window a really fantastic gospel service. It made me think, "I want to go to a church with amazing gospel music." This particular church was an all black congregation and I was reflecting that I'd feel uncomfortable inserting my white self into a black social space and that I'd feel somehow like an interloper. I went to an AME church once, which happened to be while I was volunteering with the Obama campaign and me and other volunteers were sent there by HQ to register voters are part of the effort to mobilize the black church community. Anyway, we were regarded with good humor and I'd say a mixture of amusement and skepticism. I get the feeling that I'd end up feeling a lot of (justified?) "So what is she doing here?" vibes if I went to a black church. Maybe this is a white privilege-y question in that I want to be involved in something that is regarded as a culturally black experience but I don't want to feel the discomfort of being a white outsider. Anyway I don't know.

I guess I am asking: What are your experiences as either a black person when white people come to your congregation (if your congregation is mostly black) and how do you feel about it? What are your experiences as a white person going to a black church? Do you know of any mixed race congregations with amazing music in the Chapel Hill or the triangle area?
posted by mermily to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a kid my sister and I went to a Fellowship Baptist Church with our father. We were not the only white people to attend but I would think that less than 10% of the membership was not black. It never seemed an issue at all. I remember that there were a lot of woman who wore hats which was new to me compared to other congregations I had attended and there was a lot more audience "participation". Lots of people calling out "Praise Jesus!" "Amen!". The choirs were great and the singing from everyone was filled with passion. I never felt anything other than welcomed by everyone there. It was a pretty huge church in Toronto Canada so I don't know if that would be the same experience that you would face but the church was strongly southern baptist.
posted by saradarlin at 10:27 AM on April 20, 2013

Personal experience, and the experience of friends and family (all white folks): always warmly and genuinely welcomed and accepted in all black churches.
posted by The Deej at 10:41 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The writer Anne Lamott belongs to a mostly black church and has written extensively about her faith.
posted by brujita at 10:42 AM on April 20, 2013

I had a friend who played in a gospel band all over the central Texas area. I went to see the band play in dozens of all black churches and was nearly always welcomed heartily. Only one downtown hardcore mission church had people who eyed me warily. Despite that, several people in the congregation apologized for the stares of the others.

In some churches, I was invited back and even encouraged to consider their church as my "church home".
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2013

It may take time for the inevitable weird self-consciousness of being the only white person in the room to pass, but once it passes, itll pass for everyone. Just be yourself, take time and participate in your own way, and be enthusiastic and open minded. But yes, do participate!!! :) It'll show genuine interest.
posted by rhythm_queen at 10:46 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

This White comedian has a pretty funny (IMO) take on his first experience attending a Black church.

For whatever it's worth, the guy is married to a Black woman and has two children with her. He has some bona fides and isn't merely LOLblackpeople.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:06 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think a lot is gonna depend on where this falls for you on the spectrum between "recreational" and "spiritual."

If you're a Christian and you're looking for a congregation to worship with, then you should stop worrying right now and go. That is what churches are for. Anyone who sincerely wants to worship there, belongs there.

If, okay, maybe you don't identify as a Christian per se, but you're still seeking some sort of spiritual experience and you're open to the possibility that the AME Church is going to have what you need, then it's the same answer — quit worrying and go. That's part of what churches are for too.

If you're explicitly not interested in what the church believes, not open to the possibility of ever coming to believe it yourself, really just there for the music — well, then it's complicated. At some churches you would still be welcome with an attitude like that. At some you wouldn't be.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 1:03 PM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't want to feel the discomfort of being a white outsider.

I think you may be overplaying the race aspect of this just a little.

True, if you happen to be the only person of your particular race in a congregation, people will notice that. But stick around for more than a few weeks, and most people will get past that and start to see you as a regular attender.

But if you really want to belong, you will probably need to look into formally joining the congregation. Most Christian churches have some protocol for formal membership, most of them take it pretty seriously, and almost none of them give two bags of rocks what your race or background is. As long as they think your interest is genuine, i.e., you actually believe what they believe, want to become part of their community, and intend to participate in the life of the church, they'll likely welcome you with open arms. But if you aren't interested in any of those things, then you'll always be something of a tourist, even if race wasn't an issue at all.

So. If you want to hang out at a predominantly black church on Sundays but have no interest in seeing any of your fellow congregants during the week or otherwise adjusting your social calendar, you'll probably find that difficult to pull off comfortably. But that may well have been true even if you were black.
posted by valkyryn at 1:36 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have a black churchgoing friend? Ask to visit with them!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:50 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am white. I was forced to attend church weekly as a child. I lived in a predominantly white town and went to a predominantly white church. When I was about eight (maybe), my family was on vacation somewhere in the south, and on Sunday, went to some random church (random from my point of view; maybe my parents picked it for some particular reason, but if so I don't know what that reason was). Besides my family, the people in that church that day were almost exclusively, or perhaps even completely exclusively, black.

I don't remember it very well, but the one thing that sticks in my mind was that that church was a whole lot more fun than the church I was normally dragged to.
posted by Flunkie at 7:58 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is an Onion on point for this!

I've known a few white people who have worshipped at black gospel-music-centric churches and they've never felt unwelcome ... but it's also in truth never been their church in a full sense of the word. It's not some kind of particular "black Americans don't like white Americans" thing, it's just a reflection of the reality that worship communities are overwhelmingly an ethnic in-group thing no matter your place or denomination. (Oddly, I sometimes that religion and politics are what some white Americans do to deal with the fact that white Americans pretty much unique in the world can feel that they lack any ethnic community or solidarity...)
posted by MattD at 8:19 PM on April 20, 2013

Call one of the pastors and ask. Seriously. Put it out there like, "I have really been admiring the passion and the energy of your parishioners lately and I would love to come to a service sometime because it's been so inspiring to me. Would you or any of your congregation be uncomfortable with my presence if I were to do so? I do not want to impose, and I do not want to invade." Most of the pastors I know would be totally willing to answer you truthfully and kindly.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:48 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you travel and go as a real tourist you might feel a little less self conscious. I have been to five or six (local) services and never had less than a 100% enthusiastic welcome. I have heard that the world's greatest gospel service is at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Memphis TN with the Reverend Al Green and I intend to visit it.

Take some earplugs if you think you might need them because it can get really loud in there!
posted by bukvich at 9:21 PM on April 20, 2013

I went to a similar gig as a young white kid once and had a blast. I didn’t sense any bad feelings from anyone.

Do what you can to make our nation less racially divided.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:45 AM on April 21, 2013

I sang in a black gospel choir for three years. Only white person. We toured at AME, Baptist and Pentecostal churches. They all loved me. Black church is awesome and fun. If you go regularly you will most likely be well accepted. I am very happy to advise you further via MeMail if you like. Also black gospel radio is a great way to learn the songs, it is extra fun if you do that.
posted by Mistress at 12:29 PM on April 21, 2013

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