Read through Michael O. Emerson’s (with Rodney M. Woo) People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States last night and today. It is a fabulous book that explores internal and external dynamics in the U.S., replete with (sometimes) dense sociological data and gripping accounts (some written by Rodney Woo) of personal and congregational transformation. Much of the data explains the history and life of Wilcrest Baptist Church, located in Houston.
Emerson chose to use multiracial instead of multicultural or multiethnic because he argues that the “fundamental cleavage” (fn2, p. 34) in the U.S. is race, not ethnicity. Therefore, “multiracial” more fully captures the immediacy of experiences people have in these congregations.
In terms of numbers, Emerson’s research shows that only about 7% of congregations in the U.S. could be described as multiracial, where “no one racial group comprises 80 percent or more of the people” (35). According to Emerson, the percentages decrease further when one examines Christianity in general, and then Protestantism in particular. Readers should spend time on chapter 2 particularly since it is here Emerson lays out a thoroughgoing but helpful explanation of the data he compiled and analyzed. He identifies various factors that contribute to or limit a congregation’s multiracial character, as well as important “pathways” (p. 161) to becoming racially diverse. I won’t belabor all of the statistical data; spend time reading it to illuminate the rest of the book. Chapter 7 offers a nice, crisp summary of the research as well.
From interviews and observations, Emerson identifies what he calls the “Sixth American” (99), a play off of David Hollinger’s Postethnic America (1995) which identifies 5 racial groups in the U.S, in essences 5 “types” (99) of Americans (Indian/Native American, African American/Black, European American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American/Asian). Hollinger’s definitions note the cultural creation and meaning of “race.” Sixth Americans, in Emerson’s estimation, are individuals who are members of multiracial congregations, and those who intentionally pursue multiracial friendship and fellowship, in public and in private, on the job, and at church. As Emerson importantly points out, these people are Sixth Americans by “choice” (100).
This is an important point to make, and one I wish to highlight. At the present time, what little data exists on this particular question, I think it reveals intentionality toward community in these multiracial congregations. In sociological and historical terms, one might say that people in multiracial congregations deconstruct societal notions of race to reconstruct racial identity in the context of a community that affirms both individuals and structural forms of integration. In spiritual terms, Sixth Americans commit themselves to racial equality and all that it implies, taking Spirit-led risks to form a fabric of Christian community that takes time and patience to stitch, as different needles are used to thread the whole cloth. And needles will need to be carefully passed to future generations. That only 7% of U.S. congregations are multiracial (according to the data), means that very few people embrace a rigorous intentionality in terms of living a life of multiracial possibilities and existence.
George Yancey's One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches (2003), a book written using the same data Emerson accessed, has a good chapter on the concept and enactment of intentionality (pp. 108-117).
Emerson notes that multiracial congregations are in a “toddler stage” (160), but he does sense a “swelling momentum” (170) among and within these communities. After noting the unique nature of multiracial congregations when compared the entirety of America’s racialized, religious landscapes, Emerson strikes something of a prophetic, hopeful tone: “These congregations may be harbingers of a new stage of U.S. race relations” (193).
This book is a must read.
And, I end with a question: Are you a Sixth American? What stories can you share that will help us "see" the possibilites of being a Sixth American?