What is “Racial Ethnic”?

December 5, 2006

Sorry for the long silence here on Sheep Days. Mostly it’s because I’ve been really busy finishing up the fall semester. But another reason is that I haven’t had much to say here. I’ve been trying to figure out what direction this blog is going in. Looking back at old posts, the best ones have had to do with my experiences as the pastor of Guadalupe Presbyterian Church. I guess everything else about my life is fairly unremarkable (except for me and the people I love). What’s unusual–and perhaps worthy of your interest–is a 31-year-old Presbyterian minister who is the pastor of a tiny Yaqui and Mexican church in urban Arizona.

Here’s a photo of the courtyard behind our church:

ramada

So, here I go. I’ll try to blog more about this church and my relationship to it. I have lots of questions to address. I’ll start with one about the categories the Presbyterian Church (USA) uses for churches like mine: “racial ethnic.”

If you go to the statistics page of our denomination’s website, you can access the “Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions” about the PC(USA). Here is #7:

7. What is the racial-ethnic makeup of the church? How diverse are we?

The PCUSA is mostly White, and therefore, not very diverse. The majority of the church is White (92 percent). Other racial-ethnic groups for which data are collected by the PCUSA are: Black or African American (3.2 percent of all members), Asian (3.0 percent), Hispanic (1.3 percent), and Native American (0.3 percent). (There is also an “other” category, 0.3 percent.)

The race-ethnicity of ministers is similar with the exception that the second largest group of ministers, other than those who are White, are Asian (6.1 percent). In addition, 3.6 percent are Black, 2.2 percent are Hispanic, and 0.2 percent are Native American. Elders and deacons follow a similar pattern, with deacons being the most likely group to have someone of color (14 percent). About 8 percent of elders are people of color.

So there you have it. I minister to a church that is half Hispanic and half Native American (though it is not clear to Yaquis or anyone else whether they are also Hispanic), i.e. a group that hovers somewhere between 1.3 and 0.3 percent of all fellow Presbys. Many a day I have wondered what it is about the Presbyterian Church that brings them back to the place week after week. It is certainly not the open and inviting atmosphere at the denominational or presbytery level.

Sure, the denomination says it wants more “racial ethnic” members, but in so saying, they use thoughtless phrases like “racial ethnic.” What they mean is brown people, and maybe Asians. To call Mexican Americans, Koreans, African Americans, and indigenous people “racial ethnic” has some serious problems. Please allow me describe some of them to you here:

  1. “racial ethnic”–Do we mean race or do we mean ethnicity? Do we even know what the differences are? For me, an academic who studies issues of race and ethnicity in religion, this kind of talk is imprecise enough to drive one nuts. This is certainly not the last word, but here’s a try at definition: “Race” refers to groups that share characteristic skin color and other physical features. These features are often defined socially rather than biologically. “Ethnicity” refers to the culture, traditions, language, geographic place, and other identifying features of a particular group of people. Using this definition, my race is white and my ethnicity is, broadly speaking, North American Protestant.
  2. “racial ethnic”–The phrase implies that non-white people have race and ethnicity while white people have none. This erasure of white people’s color and ethnicity is a much-commented tactic of the powerful that is used to remind the not-so-powerful that they are different, other, categorizable. At the same time, the generic “white” is pure and above categorization. It is not ethnic, tribal, dark, or (for liberals) exotic and multicultural.
  3. “racial ethnic”–We (read, “whites”) claim to want more racial ethnic members in our churches. Does this mean we want more racial ethnic churches, i.e. segregated in their own parishes? Or, do we want them included in our own lily white churches? If so, do we want them as tokens of our tolerance and broad-mindedness? How come at Guadalupe, no one has sent me a memo or a strategic plan on how to get more white people to come to our church?
  4. The liberals in my denomination (a subgroup of which I am regrettably a part) have articulated that if we want racial ethnic people in our churches, we’re going to have to change the way we do church. It is not enough, they say, just to include brown people, we also need to change our structures and local practices to embrace and share in their gifts and cultural traditions. So, I ask, what does this mean? Does it mean including tortillas at the potlucks? Does it mean embracing a deep ambiguity in attitudes about the virgin Mary? Does it mean that we all start to advocate for reparations for black people whose ancestors were slaves? Does it mean that at my church we need to whiten it up a little so that white people feel more comfortable when they stop in? In my opinion, all such imagined changes have been superficial at best. No one has gotten real and asked, What would the PC(USA) look like if its polity actually allowed extremely poor or marginalized people to be equal partners. As it currently stands, something as mundane as our minimum salary caps for pastors are greatly prohibitive for many small or impoverished churches.

We need to drop the category of “racial ethnic” as a denomination and start to talk about real groups of actual people. We also need to talk about money, because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that race and class are related in this country.

I didn’t talk much about Guadalupe per se in this post, but these are issues that affect our congregation. I’d appreciate your comments.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “What is “Racial Ethnic”?”

  1. Matt Says:

    Brett, You raise excellent points, particularly as regards the relation between these categories and that of “social class”. Notice that the denomination does not track that particular statistic, economic affluence/poverty. What I find irksome is the 60’s boomer liberal types who still suffer from the delusion that they are living Dr. King’s dream. Nothing makes me want to run screaming for the exits more than those who console themselves once a year with token gestures of inclusivity mid-January.
    But I am part of the problem, because I feel the inadaquacy of these strategies and like you and completely baffled as to how meaningful change might be brought about.

  2. Matt Says:

    Brett, You raise excellent points, particularly as regards the relation between these categories and that of “social class”. Notice that the denomination does not track that particular statistic, economic affluence/poverty. What I find irksome is the 60’s boomer liberal types who still suffer from the delusion that they are living Dr. King’s dream. Nothing makes me want to run screaming for the exits more than those who console themselves once a year with token gestures of inclusivity mid-January.
    But I am part of the problem, because I feel the inadaquacy of these strategies and like you am completely baffled as to how meaningful change might be brought about.

  3. Evonne Says:

    I don’t have much help on your thoughts but I just wanted to say that all denomations have the same problems. I just kind of floated along and was never involved in the runnings of a church for years. About 6 years ago we started on outreach in Yellville with our demonation, headquarters in Grand Rapids. It has been going well but I have become very much involved in the politics and it is not pretty. We have had some major with a capital M problems here to the point of me questioning why I’m with this demonation and at times my faith. But every one assures me it is the same with every church. But I liked it alot better when I didn’t know all the “stuff”.

  4. sheepdays Says:

    Matt, you said about the 60s liberals still living the dream. The dream of buying a lot of crap from mail order catalogs!

    Aunt Evonne, I’m sorry you’ve had to see all the dark side of denominations. They can get pretty political and creepy, for sure. I wonder why I stick around sometimes, too. I guess it’s just preordained that we Calvinist types will have to put up with this stuff…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: