Writing in the Margins

Thinking with a not-so-colonized mind


Tony AjaA church for white people?
Your mouth says, “Inclusion!” Your wallet says, “More of the same.”

by Antonio “Tony” Aja

What will the church be like when white people[1] become the minority in the United States? In an ever-increasing multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society—thanks mainly to immigration as well as higher birth rates among people of color—the question has great relevance. It could very well represent the main challenge faced by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other mainline and mostly white denominations in the 21st century.

The 2010 US Census and more recent predictions from demographers already give hints that white communities of European descent are in the minority in many areas of the country and will eventually be less than 50 percent of the population by mid-century. It is a reality that many see as an opportunity to enhance their worldview and learn from those with different cultures and languages. Others see a threat. While some folks legitimately want to have a conversation about available resources and matters of the law, others have shaped their racism into anti-immigrant laws that particularly target Latinos, the largest racial minority group in the United States.

The church herself also seems to be unwilling to change at almost every level of the institution. Strategies for making the church more ethnically inclusive tend to lack sufficient resources and institutional support. The Presbyterian Mission Agency has one—that’s right, just one—associate for both racial and gender justice. She’s an amazing leader, but one might think that dismantling centuries of racial and gender justice might require more than one staff person. There’s also only one translator each for translating essential documents into Spanish and Korean. The result is that many important items are not translated in a timely manner, if at all. Mid-councils, moreover, when forced to reduce staff, often target the positions dealing with multicultural or immigrant ministries.

The typical response, of course, is that that’s just not in the budget. And I know that times are tough, particularly for the denominational offices. Since 2006, the Presbyterian Mission Agency alone has lost at least 100 employees. And yet, Presbyterians in general are among the wealthiest Christians in the world. The money’s going somewhere.

‘Budget priorities from the national to the local level must give priority to ministries that will increase outreach to communities of color and immigrants.’

At last account, the PC(USA) was still approximately 91 percent white (Pew just reported 88 percent) in spite of initiatives, declarations, and many years of official efforts. While about half of the denomination’s new worshiping communities are comprised predominately of people of color, and while the denomination has seen growth in its new immigrant worshiping communities, the sad reality is that most gains in the membership of color in the PC(USA) reflect not so much the success of any initiative as much as the rapid attrition of white members. Thus the percentage of people of color[2] in the PC(USA) is growing largely because whites are declining.[3]

Many Presbyterians are also concerned that, while the growth in new worshiping communities is encouraging, these congregations tend to be located along the margins of power in the denomination (in terms of wealth, mid-council representation, and access). Traditional centers of power (our long-standing congregations) have not generally diversified. Only 18 percent of Presbyterians say that they have worshiped in the last two years with a congregation of another racial-ethnic background, and only about 12 percent report having a conversation about racism. Most Presbyterians worship with people who have the same racial ethnic identity as they do.

While the country is going in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural direction, the PC(USA) appears to be standing still, adamantly remaining a “white enclave”[4] even while professing the values of diversity. There are indeed signs of hope. The new cross-agency campaign Ask Why You Matter to Me is a churchwide effort to recommit Presbyterians to racial justice and faithfully proclaim that lives of people of color matter. But for the time being, most efforts—generally backed by a few advisory committees and frantic, under-resourced staff—remain on the sidelines for the vast majority of Presbyterians.

Therefore, if the PC(USA), a predominantly white, English-speaking denomination, is going to thrive and have effective, God-honoring ministries in a multicultural and multiethnic society, then it must develop strategies to change institutionally. The church must move from token representation of people of color (in order to fulfill quotas or appease a portion of its constituency) toward a model of equality and justice, so that it can be “the church together” in true solidarity with all peoples as envisioned in Scripture.

All cultural and ethnic groups should be able to share with the church at every level their gifts of tradition, liturgy, preaching, music, and perhaps even governance style. Bridges must be built both ways. The old paradigm of expecting those who are different to assimilate fully to the dominant culture’s norms must give way to the mutual exchange of perspectives, beliefs, and practices.

‘The old paradigm of expecting those who are different to assimilate fully to the dominant culture’s norms must give way to the mutual exchange of perspectives, beliefs, and practices.’

Our differences must be explored and affirmed, not just tolerated. I call this a “color-sighted” methodology, an improvement over its distant cousin, color blindness (where the goal is to see everyone the same and usually from the perspective of those in power). The latter negates God’s plan of creating a diverse world where everyone’s particular traits and characteristics are affirmed and celebrated.[5]

Budget allocations from the national to the local level must give priority to ministries that will increase outreach to communities of color and immigrants. Our congregations must step up and commit their time and resources, collaborating with national staff rather than waiting for them to solve the problems. That’s true for any ministry these days; the institution of the church looks different today and depends on grassroots action. However, that cannot excuse the budgetary marginalization of the needs of communities of color even at the national level. Our church may be connectional in polity and theology, but right now, it’s not in resources. A number of congregations, for example, sit on multi-million dollar endowments while African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic congregations in the same area struggle even to pay for a part-time pastor.

Moreover, new staff hired by both the national entities and the mid-councils should be culturally proficient. In others words, we need people who understand the dynamics of the changing demographics and cultures in the United States and develop ministries accordingly.

Globalization has reached our shores in the form of migrant Latin American agricultural workers and artists, South Asian taxi drivers and professors, and African refugees, each with his or her own faith story. God has been speaking to them, and we should be listening.

The church in the United States needs this new blood, this new faith—these new perspectives of God’s wonderful kin-dom.

Antonio (Tony) Aja is a teaching elder member of the Presbytery of Santa Fe in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and currently serves as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at McCormick Theological Seminary. A former refugee from Cuba, Tony has developed new ministries with refugees and immigrants in Florida and Kentucky. He has been a missionary, pastor, executive director of an ecumenical ministry, and staff at the PC(USA) national headquarters.

[1] I use the term “white” descriptively not only of the ethnicity but also in the political sense. Whites are the majority ethnic group politically and economically while not necessarily demographically.

[2] While official terminology in the PC(USA) and other denominations describe people of color as “racial ethnic,” I refuse to use this term because whites are also racial-ethnic people! The official terminology supports the notion of “otherness” or non-normative, with “white” or “whiteness” being the purported “standard.” I am waiting for a more inclusive terminology that will not convey inferiority.

[3] Jack Marcum, former coordinator of Research Services, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), July 1, 2011. Jack explained in a power point presentation at a national church gathering: “While the total number of PC(USA) congregations declined from 11,260 in 1998 to 10,657 in 2009, most of the churches that closed were white. In contrast, the growth that has occurred in the past decade has generally been among immigrant ethnic churches.”

[4] Various sources describe “white enclaves” (or “Whitopia”) as neighborhoods formed by whites during the “white flight” from the inner cities during the 1960s and ‘70s. I use the term white enclave in the metaphorical sense to illustrate how whites maintain power in the church in spite of cultural and demographic changes.

[5] Many, both on the liberal and conservative wings of church and society, advocate for a “color blind” approach as a sign that we live in a post-racist society. This approach, while perhaps well intentioned, seeks to see everyone the same and negates the racism that still exists and the great diversity found in God’s creation.