Guest commentary by Carlton Johnson
Confession: I have never been to a Korean Presbyterian worship service.
Unfortunately, I have never been invited. Neither my Korean nor non-Korean associates are members of a Korean Presbyterian congregation. And, though one of my closest friends is pastor of a church whose membership is predominantly Korean, their worship service is very Euro-American.
I could have gone on my own by now, but to be honest, I do not want to go as a spectator. There is something unsettling, almost violating, about worshipping under a voyeur’s gaze. I refuse to subject anyone to it for I have come to know it and the feelings it stimulates all too well.
My own church, First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, is distinct as congregations go within our denomination. Icons, naming conventions and elements of spiritual practices from throughout the African diaspora are blended with traditional Christian worship. God is called by the names known in African and Caribbean cultures, such as Olodumare and Unkulunkulu. We include rituals of pouring libations and ancestral veneration. Through the binoculars of the Western Christian gaze, we have been seen as “heretical” among other things.
But our intent is to provide a place where individuals can connect with God and experience true worship in an African-centered community. A place where people who identify with Africa as the land of their origin can worship as their authentic African selves.
We recognize the uniqueness of our church. We have occasionally welcomed students to include First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in their research. Though I was already a member, I did so myself.
Hence, I am intimately familiar with the fact that visitors with the sole purpose of academic research can be distracting. Voyeurism interrupts the flow of fellowship between authentic attendees and the spirits and ancestors (the great cloud of witnesses) who have been summoned to participate in the worship service.
Martin Luther King Jr. was “appalled that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” I’m not so bothered. Partially because, as do most, I understand that we worship in communities where we live, work and play. The diversity (or lack thereof) in those communities is often reflected in the worship services we choose to attend.
Yet the biggest reason I have for overlooking what King saw as problematic is that I don’t believe that Sunday worship services should be surrogates for the work we are called to do in cultivating and developing meaningful one-on-one relationships. If the only time we interact with people of different cultures, social statues, sexualities, faiths and more is on Sunday mornings, we are neglecting our work of Christian outreach and relationship building at the individual level.
Further, we have still not stepped outside of our comfort zones. We may still be living in fear. Though our denomination and our home church may be diversifying and becoming more inclusive, our individual fears are more present than ever. We are simply using the church like an armed bodyguard that allows us a couple of hours a week of “visitation” with other groups so that we can check diversity off of our Christian to-do list.
In John’s Revelation (7:9), there is the vision of “a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.” Though race, gender and sexuality are not mentioned, there is a quite a bit of diversity to be expected. Nationhood, communities and languages are retained. The great reward doesn’t seem to include heavenly homogenization.
So friends, it looks like we’ve got some mixing and mingling to do each week after benediction. See you at happy hour! I’ll be the bald guy in glasses.
CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He also serves as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.