The Fears of Race Relations: Confessions of a White Pastor

The Fears of Race Relations: Confessions of a White Pastor

By Paul F. Wohlgemuth

Vol. 2, No. 6, 1980, pp. 4-6

After serving 11 years as a pastor in two churches in racially changing areas I have concluded that nothing is more destructive to harmonious human relations than fear. I have analyzed my own feelings. I have observed and analyzed the words and actions of others. In all of these experiences and situations, attitudes and reactions, almost every time a racial problem is traced to its origin, it is found to be rooted in fear.

In analyzing fear, it is necessary to assess your whole life — from birth to the present. Most of us are not free of our past. We are, in a sense, what our pasts have made us. I am no exception.

I first became aware of my fear of Black people when my wife and I were hunting for a house in the early years of our marriage. 1 was in the army living in Battle Creek, Michigan. We had discovered the house we wanted, but I had also discovered that we would have Black neighbors. I cannot say that I was really afraid, but I didn’t want to live there because of the neighbors.

Some may question that fear was at the base of my reactions. Some may rather call it bigotry or arrogance or something else. I prefer to call it fear – fear because of ignorance. I had never lived beside Blacks nor even near them. I had had several in my classes while a public school teacher, but as neighbors, they were a totally “unknown entity” to me.

Early in my career as a White pastor in an area of racial change I recall being afraid to walk past Black teenage boys gathered to play in the public playground next door to my parsonage. They would glare at me silently as I walked by. Sometimes they would talk in low tones among themselves and then break into raucous laughter. One afternoon after a brief exchange of words, I saw one of the boys knock a White man to the ground and several of the others kick him. What had been said between them I didn’t know.

Later when I moved into a predominately Black neighborhood and groups of teenagers would walk by on the street and look at me, I’d wonder what they might be planning to do to me or my family. Of course, I didn’t know that they would do anything. It was fear of the unknown again.

Another fear I had to deal with was the reaction of White people because of my relations with Black people. In my first church in a racially changing

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community, I feared what my members would say and do if a Black person were to attend a worship service. Numerous persons had threatened to leave the service. Some said that if they did they would never return.

When a Black family moved in next door, I feared what the White people would say if I did what my religion demanded of me – to be a good neighbor, to visit the newcomers, to sit in their living room as I would with any White person, and, most importantly, to invite them to worship in our church as I would any White neighbor.

Every Sunday morning while in the pulpit of my church, I would anxiously watch the door of the sanctuary. Would today be the day a Black person would enter to worship? Would the offering be less? What would those who had threatened to leave the church do? What would I do?

These same fears followed me to my next pastoral appointment. They diminished my first year there because the community (parish area) was predominantly White. However even though business as usual in the church was”the order of the day,” there was an uneasiness in the community. An increasing number of “For Sale” signs were frightening the residents. As we saw our White members leave, the uneasiness developed into a nagging fear which was to last for several years.

How many would leave the church as they were leaving the community? Would enough remain to support the $85,000 annual budget? If not enough remained, what would happen to my status as a minister? Would my salary be reduced or would I be considered a “failure” and sent to a “small” church? Would I lose my influence among the leaders of our local church if I led them in the direction in which we were compelled to go? Would I be called “nigger lover” (which incidentally, I was)? Would Whites and Blacks be able to worship together, to study together, to eat together at fellowship suppers?

What if the church did actually become predominately or totally Black? That possibility led to another set of fears. Would I as a White minister be able to serve it? Could I, as a White person, minister to the needs of Black people? Could I preach to them?

These fears became crystalized during the sixth year of my ministry when the church had actually become predominately Black. My fear came not so much from the Black people in the local church, but from Black leaders in the General Black United Methodist Church.

While attending a Convocation on the Black Church, sponsored by Black Methodists for Church Renewal, I heard so much about Black preaching, Black music and Black worship that I became convinced that I was not the right person to serve a Black congregation. My fears had taken over. I must add, however, that through the kindness of some of the leaders of our local church, I was convinced that my fears were largely unfounded and that I should continue for another year.

I have seen changes occur in White families as they became the minority in the community and in the church. They had been the advocates of integration. They wanted an interracial church and worked diligently to make it so. I believe that they were sincerely dedicated to the cause. They worked beautifully with Black people in our church promoting them to positions of leadership. However, when they heard their small children assume some of the “Black” ways of speaking and saw Black and White little “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” coming home together, those deepseated, overwhelming fears of the ages emerged. Neither Black people nor White people on the whole favor interracial marriage. However, Whites fear it while Blacks simply oppose it. The opposition to integrating our churches came from Whites who feared that association of Black children and White children in church-school classes would ultimately lead to marriage. They saw the barriers which once had kept Black people “in their place” disappearing. They assumed that as the color barrier was being minimized the possibilities of inter-marriage would be maximized.

Now what are some of the fears of the Blacks? Although it cannot be said that all Blacks have the same fears anymore than it can be said of Whites, here are some which seem very real. These have come to me from Blacks with whom I have

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spoken openly and from my reading of Black authors.

Most of all, Blacks are afraid of being rejected by White people because of their color. Since every normal person may have the fear of being rejected by someone for some reason, we must see the distinction between the general fear of rejection and the specific fear of rejection because of the color of one’s skin.

It is difficult for White people to understand this, especially those of us who have never been a minority because of skin pigmentation. This fear is an indigenous part of the “Black situation.” Blacks have experienced it from birth to death for many generations.

“Rejection” is written all over the scenario of race relations. Although Black and White drinking fountains and restrooms are no longer seen in most of our country, they linger on quite vividly in memory. It is only within the past few years that the word “Black” on an application for a position has not been a barrier to the Black applicant. In many instances Black people with superior qualifications have been denied even the right for an interview because of color.

It must be admitted that many White people are sincerely trying to overcome their rejection of Black people. Yet, it is still evident in many ways. One of the most obvious of these ways is the rejection of Blacks in White churches. To be sure, very few churches have a “closed door policy”, but the “closed heart” signs are still up. The pious publicity of openness becomes only a goad when dampened by a halfhearted welcome. The forced smile and limp handshake can be more irritating to a person expecting a friendly greeting than the “Black” water fountains. Much of the rejection which Blacks once feared has only gone “underground” and has, perhaps, in this sense become more painful.

I recall a conversation I had early in the transition with a young couple who later joined our church. The young wife said, “Mother didn’t want us to move into this White community. She was afraid that we’d get hurt.”

This mother probably did not fear physical harm to her daughter, although that could not have been entirely ruled out. (She may have heard of the house which had been bought about a mile from where we sat and which before the Black family moved in was bombed.) Her concern was for the feelings of her daughter and her little grandchildren. She didn’t want them to suffer any more of the hurt of rejection.

Another fear is that of being cheated by White people. This fear might be a mutual one and in many instances may be unfounded, but real. This fear has been largely inherited. It is a well established fact that many Black sharecroppers have been cheated by the White landowner. Because of his lack of knowledge and understanding, he was often unaware of the false transactions in which his rights were violated until it was too late for recourse. Accounts of such flagrant dishonesty and abuse by the White man have filtered down from Black father to Black son. Is there any wonder that many Black people are suspicious of White people especially when many are still being cheated of their right as citizens to vote?

All of these fears, those of Whites and those of Blacks, have become barriers between the races. Fear undermines understanding. It blocks communication. It prevents a solution of the race problem.

Those who may still insist on ignoring fear as a barrier need only be reminded of the presence of racism all around us. To be sure, some progress has been made. Very few church doors are barred against Black worshippers today. Racial violence has subsided. But underneath the apparent calm there is still turbulence.

Paul F. Wohlgemuth is a retired minister of the United Methodist Church. His last church was in the Ben Hill community in the Atlanta area.