Trying pay-per-pew

Aug 13, 2003 at 12:00 am

Must we pay whites to worship next to blacks? Do we need integration that badly?

Bishop Fred Caldwell, pastor of the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Church in Shreveport, La., thinks so. On Sunday, Aug. 3, he became probably the first to ever pay white people $5 an hour to attend Sunday worship services at a predominantly black church. The rates are $10 an hour for Thursday services.

If you pay them, they will come.

Caldwell, said last week on National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition" that he pays white guests out of his own pocket and that "the Lord put it on my heart" to do so. Caldwell claimed that out of roughly 2,000 attendees, about 50 were white. Only four took the money. The rest came for the fellowship "because they sense a need to be among blacks and blacks sense a need to be among them."

"I made the offer because the local church around here on Sunday morning does not look like it needs to look," he told the interviewer.

But is offering white folks money to attend a black church the answer? Could Christ’s disciples still have been his disciples if they had been on his payroll? Are your friends really your friends if you have to pay them to say they’re glad to see you?

"I believe it is out of character with the purpose of the gospel," says the Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel and President of the Detroit Branch NAACP. "If you feel you need to pay people, then you need to examine the content and the character of the style of worship. White folks have to make the decision that black religiosity has as much substance to it as white religiosity. … And if that’s not good enough for people to come and to unite around the church based on who Christ is, then any PR hocus-pocus … or gymnastics, really puts something in front of Christ that need not be there."

Bishop Caldwell seemed to counter that opinion when he cited Matthew 20:1-16: "… where the Lord Jesus talked about a householder that went out into the marketplace to hire laborers for his vineyard, and he went out several times during the course of the day. And then there were some persons there that were standing idle, and the question was raised, ‘Why are you standing idle?’ and they said ‘Because no man has hired us.’ So he hired them, and at the end of the day he paid them."

"And that’s exactly what I’m doing," he said. "It’s what the Lord instructed me to do."

Anthony again takes exception.

"That comes from the mass of the church uniting to take care of the shepherd. It does not mean that you set apart a segment of the body of Christ to pay a special fee to come to see you."

It also says something about the black members of Bishop Caldwell’s congregation if they approve of this stunt. They’re the ones who’ve been supporting the church all this time. While Caldwell pays white worshipers "out of his pocket," it’s Greenwood Acres Full Gospel’s blacks who pay Caldwell’s salary. So where is their compensation? Are they supposed to wait on the Lord while their white brothers and sisters are given a little something to tide them over in the meantime?

While religion seems to be all about money these days, perhaps Caldwell would do well to recall that Christ drove the moneychangers from the temple, an act that one could view as a condemnation of money-grubbing of any kind in the house of the Lord.

Given the nature of man, which thrives on having someone to look down upon — or up to — I doubt God is surprised at how swiftly we have managed to screw up his intentions. And I wonder if God gets as bent out of shape as Bishop Caldwell does when he checks out a typical Sunday morning in America. Not only are there endless Christian denominations, all of which were formed to reflect slightly different interpretation of the gospel, but there are few churches with a truly integrated congregation. Generally, Sunday morning is when whites and blacks prefer to love the Lord while staying just as far apart from each other as they can get.

It’s bad enough that de facto segregation still exists in America. Finding a truly integrated neighborhood remains a challenge. The same goes for nightclubs and barbershops.

If one were to view what is taking place in the church as the same sort of de facto segregation, it’s probably the most disheartening evidence of just how far race relations have to go before this country ever reaches the promised land that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw in his dream.

Then again, perhaps the reason why different groups of people tend to worship with "their own" is a cultural one.

"I don’t worry about the segregation so much in terms of how people choose to worship," says the Rev. Bill Calhoun, pastor of Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo., where my mother has been an active member for years. "I get worried about the fact that we don’t engage in each others’ lives."

A predominantly white — and liberal — congregation, Montview has been recognized in Denver for years as a church that was on the front lines of civil rights issues when others weren’t quite so willing to step up to the plate.

If the church doors are open to one and all, and visitors are welcomed, then what’s the problem? If Bishop Caldwell is right, if black folks sense a need to be among whites and vice versa, then won’t they tend to that need without a cash incentive? Do you need a cash incentive to eat when you’re hungry?

Do we really need integration this badly?

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]