ATLANTA — THE Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called 11 o'clock Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week. Thirty years later, many churchgoers in the South say his observation still holds true.
Traditional segregation of churches - and the difficulties that sometimes arise when the racial divide in the pews begins to fall - has become apparent in recent weeks.
One incident in a small south Georgia town underscores the problem: An interracial couple who had lost a child was asked last month to remove the baby's body from the cemetery of an all-white church.
The Baptist church in Thomasville quickly backed away from its demands. But several days later, when the couple - a black man and a white woman - asked to be married in the church, leaders refused, saying the couple had lived in sin and didn't seem to have repentance in their hearts.
The incident may be extreme, but some experts say it represents an overt example of the lurking undercurrent of racism that exists under the steeples of churches in the South and around the nation.
"It's a symbol of a larger problem," says the Rev. Nibs Stroupe, pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Ga., a town near Atlanta. "It happens a lot; it's just that many white folks don't consciously act like that."
Mr. Stroupe, author of "Why We Run This Race," a book about racism, says the racism that exists in churches is subtle. "Most of us make race-based decisions for deciding where we live, where we go to school, where we go to church," he says. "Black churches have always been open to white people; white churches have not. Most white churches now have an open policy, but we really want people who are black to come and be assimilated into being like who we are."
"The segregated Sabbath remains a reality, and that's a part of the culture around racial communities or racial identity," says Forrest Harris Sr., assistant dean for black church studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. "People tend to have their identities reinforced ... by sharing in those communities that affirm that identity."
A neighborhood in flux often brings this issue to the surface because congregations are often forced to make decisions about how they will respond to new ethnic groups moving into the community.
"At that point, you discover all sorts of clues to the possible problems of residual racism still present," says Charles Foster, a religion and education professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "You see it when curriculum sources depict images or convey a point of view people find challenges their way of perceiving the world. You find it in questions of pastoral placement.... It functions at a fairly subconscious level."
Stroupe's church, Oakhurst Presbyterian, has had first-hand experience with the sensitive task of responding to changing demographics. Several decades ago its members were blue-collar whites. But as more minorities moved in, more whites left. A number stayed, however, and now the church is about half white and half minority. Though racially mixed, it still wrestles with race questions.
"It's been a struggle to say what kind of church are we going to be - a white church or a multicultural church?" Stroupe says. "Those struggles are ongoing," he says and vary from determining the racial mix of Sunday School teachers and their students to deciding whether to send Sunday School students - the majority of whom are black - to a primarily white camp.
The conflict exists, he adds, because whites make race an issue and expect blacks to act like them. Black members, in turn, challenge those beliefs.
Racially diverse congregations whose identity and mission are dependent on being multicultural are a small group, Mr. Foster says. "There are congregations like this in most urban centers across the country, but very few in small towns. It takes an unusual kind of leadership to make that work."
Still, while many churches remain segregated, it's often church clergy who help improve relations.
"When you're looking for progressive leadership in race relations in the South, very often you find it in the church," says Joel Williamson, an expert on Southern culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The incident in Thomasville, Ga., is something most clergy would deplore and is atypical, he notes.
That it happened in the South doesn't suggest that racism is more prevalent in churches here, Stroupe says.
"The people in south Georgia are no worse than the corporate banker somewhere else who puts his kids in a private school because he doesn't want them to be with black folks," Stroupe says. "Southerners are just more open about their feelings on this stuff than the rest of the country."
Stroupe is both optimistic and apprehensive about the future of race relations in churches. "Some of our teens provide hope because they have experiences I didn't have while growing up. I went to a segregated school; my children do not," he says. "The other hopeful but scary part is the growing numbers of nonwhites in the US. That's hopeful because it will force us to consider some things, but it doesn't necessarily mean things will change."