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Welcoming the stranger… as long as they look and sound like me

Welcoming the stranger… as long as they look and sound like me

Christians are called to welcome the stranger in their midst, but, according to a new study, members of mainline Protestant churches are much more likely to reply to an email from a potential new member with a white-sounding name than a black-, Hispanic- or Asian-sounding name.

The study was published in September in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, a peer-reviewed academic journal. A team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, sent emails to more than 3,000 churches across America. Each email was ostensibly from a person who had recently moved to the neighborhood, was thinking about joining the congregation, and wanted information about the church or parish. The researchers signed the emails with names that were considered identifiable as white, black, Hispanic or Asian to see whether churches replied to them in different ways. To select the names, researchers used census data to create a short list of names that strongly correlated with a particular racial identity and then used small surveys to see whether people did indeed identify a given name with a particular race.

Overall, churches were statistically significantly1 more likely to reply to writers with names that sounded white. The response rate was 63.5 percent for names considered white, 59.1 percent for Hispanic names, 58.9 percent for black names and 53.8 percent for Asian names. Because all contact was made through email, some churches may have been less prepared to reply at all, but, Wright told me, even the churches with the lowest response rate overall (Pentecostal and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 49.4 percent each) sent enough responses to allow researchers to detect racial biases.

When the researchers grouped churches by affiliation with either the Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant or Evangelical Protestant traditions, they found that Catholics and Evangelical Protestants responded equally to all the names. But they found a significant racial gap in the response of mainline Protestants: a 67.1 percent reply rate for white names, 59.9 percent for blacks, 57.5 percent for Hispanics and 48.9 percent for Asians.2

Only two denominations of the 12 studied had large enough racial gaps to be statistically significant when scrutinized on their own: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is, despite its name, a mainline church, and the American Baptist Churches (also mainline).3 ELCA churches were much more likely to reply to whites than people of other races, and American Baptist churches were more likely to reply to blacks than people of any other race.


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Margaret Underwood

I am trapped in the Diocese of Central Florida. I say this because our bishop has chosen to exclude us from the decisions on universal acceptance of all human beings. We were not consulted before he made his decision and his response to the diocese in general is that there will be NO discussion on the topic.
Our church, St Mary’s in Daytona as well as most of the other churches are failing miserably at following the teachings of Christ. Our Congregation has dwindled to roughly 1/3 with his control. Our first search and candidate was a complete disaster. We have been given an interim priest who does not fit our congregation at all. We are on a second search for a new priest. We were told that Bishop Brewer will “vet” all candidates. I served on the vestry for 3 years and resigned this position several months ago as well as the selection committee. There are many deep reasons for my particular resignation but I can assure you it was justified. Anyone who does not agree with the Bishop’s decision is trapped by location from transferring to another more tolerant diocese. We have no way to voice this concern inside the diocese. Many former members have left the Central Florida Episcopal church and are joining other churches in the area that have accepted the law of the land and the rule of Christ to not judge but to embrace as he teaches. The loss of a safe haven in Christ should NEVER have been permitted by the Church body as a whole. We have no recourse except to abandon. How can this be?
We , my husband and I, are currently attending St Timothy’s and have found a loving and accepting inclusion of all.However the topic is not discussed there either. We are 2 of 4 white attendees and have never felt so loved before. The joy of the very small but strong congregation is used to being on the “fringe” of acceptance and we are blessed to be included in this truly Christian environment. What has gone wrong?
I appeal to the new presiding Bishop with every fiber of my being to see the pain his flock is suffering and hear the cries for a return to our Lord’s teachings without exceptions imposed by those who presume to know Christ better and “what they think he really meant”

Philip B. Spivey

In fact, judging by my “on the ground experience”, I would have thought these statistics would be much more disparate. I’m surprised and pleasantly so. Lord knows that 50 years ago, these data would read very differently.

After controlling for parity in every other factor, studies done recently in corporate environments found that resume applications from persons with African American, ethnic-sounding names were significantly (and dramatically) less likely to be called for a job interview.

Although there’s something intuitively for me that suggests the culture of inclusion in the church is not quite as rosy as this study suggests, it is possible that “God’s House” may be doing a bit better than the culture-at-large.

N.B. For all those who are unfortunate enough to have to screen application letters: My anecdotal observations suggest that there are more Black folks with the surname “White”; and more white folks with the surname “Black”. Don’t be fooled. 😉

Anand Gnanadesikan

Interesting as well which churches do the best on equity.

Brian Sholl

Let’s encourage and welcome more empirical study about who we are. Better this than echo chambers.

And then let’s pray for grace.

JC Fisher

“ELCA churches were much more likely to reply to whites than people of other races”

And probably far more likely to respond to Scandanavian names, than Anglo-Saxon names! Love our ELCA kin, but they’re still pretty much an ethnic church. However,

Chance of receiving reply by race
Denom. % White – White Black Hispanic Asian
Episcopal 92 82 71 65 63

TEC still needs to do MUCH better.

Jerald Liko

I’m not sure that the difference between the ELCA’s 97% white and TEC’s 92% white membership justifies the observation that “[ELCA is] still pretty much an ethnic church.” How much of our 5% difference comes from Province 9, I wonder?

This might be a case of the sugar calling the flour white.

Jerald Liko

Perhaps I was being uncharitable – or just irked by the comment about “Anglo-Saxon names.” I am proud of my Scandinavian surname, but I learned how to pray in an ELCA church under the tutelage of folks with names like Smith and Seymour. That probably doesn’t help with the larger diversity issue, but for goodness sake, let’s not be analyzing the “white” names to figure out who’s the whitest.

Ann Fontaine

Ethnic – as in Scandinavian and German. I think not just white.

Chris Harwood

The conservative Lutheran Missouri Synod did better, so I don’t think that Lutherans being mostly Scandinavian and German was the reason. I was thinking more along the lines that the groups responded to more were generally considered richer. “Country club” churches and all that.

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