Worship Across the Racial Divide

Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation

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Gerardo Marti
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gerardo Marti, the L. Richardson King Professor of Sociology at Davidson College and the author of four other books on religion, diversity, and ethnicity, begins Worship Across the Racial Divide by misreading Martin Luther King, Jr. in a surprising and instructive way. “When Martin Luther King, Jr., took his first pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954,” Marti states, “one of his first priorities was to diversify the congregation. ‘I was convinced that worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realize their oneness and unity under God,’ [King] wrote in Stride Toward Freedom” (3). Although King, as Marti asserts, did indeed speak later in that 1958 book about the need for “the church … [to] remove the yoke of segregation from its own body” (3), and although the implementation of that imperative is the subject of Marti’s study, King is clearly referring in this earlier passage not to racial diversity but to class diversity: Dexter’s failure to make a welcoming space for working-class black folk who hailed from other “levels” within Montgomery’s black community. (He was certainly not suggesting that his church actively solicit white congregants.) “I was anxious to change the impression in the community,” writes King, “that Dexter was a sort of silk-stocking church catering only to a certain class. Often it was referred to as the ‘big folks’ church. Revolting against this idea, I was convinced that worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realize their oneness and unity under God” (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Harper & Brothers, 1958, 25). In this specific case, if not in King’s broader vision, “oneness and unity under God” is a black thing, a way of fostering intraracial solidarity rather than worshipping across the racial divide.

I begin with Marti’s misreading of King not because it invalidates his important (if sometimes turgidly written) study, but because it highlights the author’s lack of interest in social class—an analytic vector that might have helped him make sense of divergences within the spectrum of African American worship styles—and because it reveals just how much discursive energy and cultural capital is bound up in our current cultural moment with a specific set of ideas about “diversity”: in this case, full and unencumbered African American participation in mainstream American civic and social life, including religious life. The word is rarely, if ever, used to suggest that all-black spaces, such as churches, be opened up to white, Latino/a, Asian, and Native participation, which is why Marti’s initial invocation of King and his desire to “diversify his congregation” is so misleading. The focus of Worship Across the Racial Divide is the other, and far more common, sort of church-based diversity work: a collection of twelve “successfully integrated churches” (219) in Southern California, representing a broad spectrum of Protestant denominations, that have managed in various ways to foster and sustain multiracial congregations, often through deliberate hiring and programming decisions that prioritized African American worship directors, musicians, and music. (A multiracial congregation, Marti notes, is one where 20% of regular attendees are of a different race or ethnicity than the dominant group (223).)

Most of the congregations studied by Marti seem to have had earlier incarnations as dominantly white churches, although some were primarily or exclusively Asian or Latino/a. Only a small proportion (14%) of Marti's 170+ interviewees were first-generation immigrants; the rest, of whatever ethnicity, were fully acculturated, with 75% having long US ancestry. Although Marti argues that greater Los Angeles is representative, rather than unique, within the emergent American tapestry of multiracial congregations (223-24), one might just as easily argue the opposite. Few regions of America combine the presence of substantial long-duration Asian and Latino/a populations with a substantial African American population. Also present there—and not insignificantly—was the stimulus for racial healing produced by the highly publicized racial spectacles of the early to mid-1990s, a decade before this study took place: the Rodney King beating and trial, the Los Angeles uprising (which evidenced a painful black-Korean breach), and the O. J. Simpson trial and its aftermath. Neither Marti nor his interviewees mention those civic crises, and yet this study vibrates—a strong, but appropriate word—with white racial anxiety, a sincere hunger to forge beloved community intermixed with something less constructive and more neurotic, a fetishization of black gospel music and the exoticized African American bodies of those who, enticed to join non-black congregations in need of “conspicuous color” (24, 153), perform that music during worship services, either up front with the choir or out in the audience, and thereby relieve their fellow congregants of the nagging fear that they have heretofore been guilty of unconscious racist exclusion. 

The strength of this study lies in Marti’s willingness to challenge his own preconceptions about how music assists the creation and maintenance of multiracial congregations by listening closely to the testimony offered by his informants, and by drawing on an array of theoretical provocations, especially Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Although Marti had initially assumed that music was a “magic bullet” through which worship leaders “could … manipulate the style and therefore manipulate the racial and ethnic composition of a congregation” (6), and although he does indeed discover that for many non-African American congregants, worship directors and ministers, African Americans and their gospel melodies, syncopated rhythms, and lively gestural vocabularies serve as the somewhat stereotyped icons of “true worship” (51), he is also gifted with multiple revelations about what he calls “the diversity of diverse worship” (7). The so-called “pluralist” approach, for example, which believes that multiracial congregations can best be served by offering up a weekly worship buffet of “black” (gospel), “Latino” (salsa), “Asian” (pop), and “white” (acoustic guitar or loud rock) music, and which is “most aggressively promoted in books and multiracial conferences to promote diversity” (132), turns up in only one-quarter of the churches Marti studies. What also turns up are African American congregants who, far from feeling excluded by non-“black” musical menus, affirm the positive pleasure they take in “quieter, more contemplative services” (88). In the end, Marti discovers, what is vital about the music promulgated by successful multiracial congregations isn’t the sound per se or the degree to which it signposts ethnic particularities, but the practices it engenders—rehearsals, Sunday performances, after-hours meeting and meals—and the meaningful human relationships it ultimately creates.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Gussow is Professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King associate professor of sociology at Davidson College. He is author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church(2005) and Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (2008).


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