Faith, Hope and Racial Disparity : As Multicultural Marriages Increase, Churches Confront a Call for Greater Sensitivity, Support

Times Staff Writer

It was a Sunday. Through the crowd of departing parishioners, the pastor eluded her through one door; she chased after him through another. Her voice was quiet, firm and full of fury.

“I demand to be counseled,” Ruth Bryant White told the Rev. Tom Wolf, pastor of The Church on Brady in East Los Angeles, one of the city’s most ethnically diverse Baptist churches.

The preacher already had spoken to her future husband, Steve White. She said: “I want to know why you decided to do premarital counseling to Steve and did not ask me to come.”


Scriptural Silence

By that time, recalls White, a lean, 34-year-old woman with granite-like, high cheekbones, “I really didn’t want to be counseled by him. I just wanted to make a point: Because I’m black and have had three children doesn’t mean I’m dumb. . . . I know ‘The Word,’ ” says White, who recently became an ordained, nondenominational Christian minister. “And there’s nothing scriptural to justify a prohibition against interracial marriage.”

But the pastor never claimed there was, says Steve White, 40, an elementary school teacher. Instead, “he said he was against the marriage because Ruthie had been with two other men (the father of her three children born out of wedlock) and it was as if she was married to them before she met me. Since that was the case, she should make an effort to get back with them. . . . Irrespective of the fact that they were never married and these guys are not Christians. . . .”

Says Ruth White: “We know Brother Tom--he is still our brother--has interracial couples in his church but they usually are not black and white couples. The problem mostly comes . . . when blacks and whites want to marry because of society’s long-standing prejudice against blacks.”

When the pastor failed to persuade Steve White not to proceed with the wedding, other members of the congregation “started to work on him,” says his wife.

“One handed me a list of 15 reasons why I shouldn’t marry Ruth” and did everything short of pounding the list to the door like Martin Luther, says Steve. Nonetheless, the couple were married by a minister in 1980.

But they believe that things have not improved much since then for other evangelical Christians who are considering, or already are in, an interracial marriage and want counseling based on the tenets of their faith.

As a result, the couple in 1984 formed “A Place for Us,” a Christian ministry based in Gardena. The Whites both are certified Christian counselors and were ordained in 1984 as nondenominational Christian ministers by Living Waters Inc. of Garden Grove. They also are the authors of “Free Indeed, the Autobiography of an Interracial Couple,” and have appeared on locally and nationally televised talk shows.

Wolf, 44, and the pastor of The Church on Brady for 20 years, is pained by the Whites’ “misinterpretation” of events in 1980. He does not remember ever counseling either of them. Further, if he had, it would be inappropriate to reveal what went on in a pastoral counseling session with them or any other church member, he says.

But in principle, he adds: “We try to take seriously the Judeo-Christian world view, the deep affirmative world view of the unity of the human race.”

Any kind of “mixed marriage,” he insists, has problems built into it. “A man 42 marrying a woman 22 is a mixed marriage” and will have its problems, too. People from different “socioeconomic backgrounds” are a mixed couple. “But the only situation that is passed onto children is the interethnic one. . . . When you get on to larger ethnic diversions and gene isolation and then pass it on to children you have to work with” what perceived physical differences mean in society. “Many times bicultural children, based on ethnic and racial appearance, feel they don’t fit in either world,” he says, adding that he raises these issues for examination, not to condemn interracial marriage.

While most Christian ministers preach against prejudice from the pulpit, “benign neglect” typifies the attitude of most pastors toward the issue of interracial marriage, Steve White claims. “The racism is often subtle.”

Christian counselors and clergy “are often into denial about the challenges interracial couples face in a racist society,” says Ruth White. “Christian individuals and couples dealing with interracial issues obviously don’t benefit from either denial or neglect. They need positive guidance, something concrete to give them spiritual strength.

“This is a city, this is a country becoming more diverse every day . . . look at all the blacks and Hispanics and Asians who are drawn to the evangelical movement, who are born again. We don’t push interracial marriage, but it’s inevitable that there will be more and more in this kind of social environment.”

The National Assn. of Evangelicals, based in Wheaton, Ill., estimates that 20% to 25% of Americans describe themselves as “born-again” Christians. How many of those are black, Latino, Asian or other ethnic minorities is unknown.

“A lot of people believe in God,” says Ruth White. “They want to go to church, they want to bring their children up right . . . but the very thing they believe in is turning them away in many instances.”

Many Christian ministers might counter that interracial marriage is still relatively rare in the United States and there is little social motivation to preach about it.

But the increases in these marriages have been “statistically significant,” says Steve Rawlings, a U.S. Census Bureau family demographer. In 1988, there were 218,000 marriages between blacks and whites, compared to 181,000 in 1970, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws. In 1970, there were 310,000 interracial marriages beyond those involving blacks and whites. In 1986, the last year for which figures are available, these marriages had more than doubled to 827,000.

The Rev. Jack Hayford--pastor of First Four-Square Church of Van Nuys and an internationally known and respected Pentecostal clergyman--explains that “I wouldn’t say anything any differently to (an interracial couple) than I would to any other couple.” At his 7,000-member church, also known as the Church on the Way, “we have a very involved prewedding counseling program” that lasts eight weeks.

Couples also have three sessions in private with a member of the pastoral staff. “In these encounters, at the private level and the group level, one of the great challenges any couple has is to appreciate the social, economic and spiritual values and family traditions” that may differ between families. While these differences might exist because they are from “different ethnic groups or racial cultures . . . it would not be discussed from the standpoint of a racial or ethnic matter, but simply as a human matter.”

Some Christian leaders, however, “actually preach against interracial marriage,” asserts Steve White, who claims Dr. James Dobson’s ministry is one.

Dobson, whose $12.2-million ministry headquarters is in Pomona, is not an ordained minister but a broadcaster and Christian psychologist to the nation’s evangelical families. He is considered one of the most influential voices in conservative Protestant America.

His “Focus on the Family” radio shows are heard on 1,300 radio stations. And while his lay ministry--he is a layman in the Church of the Nazarene--addresses primarily family issues, he has become a political figure, too.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, called Dobson the Religious Right’s “rising star.” An ardent foe of abortion and pornography, Dobson served on the U.S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1985-86, one of several Reagan Administration appointments. Last year, he was among those conservatives who urged Congress not to override former President Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Dobson was out of the country and could not be reached. But a spokesman, Paul Hetrick, a Focus vice president, said that Focus on the Family does not “actively oppose” interracial marriage, nor has it ever done a program on the issue.

When pressed to answer questions on interracial marriage--”and we haven’t been pressed often at all,” says Hetrick--the group has recommended that people contact organizations like A Place for Us.

‘Risky Business’

But, Hetrick says, “I think Dr. Dobson believes, and Focus takes the position, that marriage is a risky business, not just interracial marriage, but any marriage. . . . And it is difficult to forge a successful relationship even under the best of circumstances.

“In interracial marriages there are even greater strains on the relationships. Typically, couples can undergo rejection by family members and (there are) the strains of cultural differences. All these place added stress on the children and the marriage. . . . For those reasons, Dr. Dobson would not recommend interracial marriage--not because of racial discrimination--but because it often leads to marital problems.”

Says Church on the Way pastor Hayford: “That point of view . . . is humorous to me now. . . . I don’t mean that I think that it’s humorous today that anybody thinks it.” But those sociological barriers are “precisely . . . the substance of the statement I concluded in a paper I wrote in graduate studies 25 years ago. It’s humorous that I once thought that and hear it repeated back in my ears by somebody in 1989. That’s not meant as a slur on Focus on the Family. I never have a negative point of observation to make about other ministries. It’s just humorous today that anybody thinks it.”

Hayford, 55, is a regular on Christian television, is heard on 70 radio stations and in 1985 was named one of the nation’s 10 leading Pentecostal-Charismatic church leaders by Charisma magazine, a leading publication in the field.

A native of Oakland, Hayford says that despite having many black friends as a youth, he was a product of the “socially segregated culture” that characterized America most of this century. So, “I find it believable that segments of the Christian church, which are essentially WASPish--and I don’t mean that unkindly, it’s just a fact”--can’t imagine any other conclusion than the one Dobson reached on interracial marriage. “It’s not even a matter of being racist. It’s just that you can’t imagine anything else . . . because your life isn’t exposed to anything else other than that general order of experience.”

What “helped open my eyes has been living in this stew pot of L.A.,” says Hayford. “I know that it’s a farce in God’s eyes that people should not intermarry. And as I traveled more internationally . . . I began to discover in the Christian Church in foreign nations interracial couples. I encountered them so constantly that I recognized what had been a sociological position in my own mind was in fact nonsense.”

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the 14.7-million-member Southern Baptist Convention--of which Wolf’s Church on Brady is a member--has numerous projects aimed at serving the country’s increasing ethnic and racial pluralism. The denomination does not know the racial and ethnic makeup of its members.

But it does know what the face of America is now and what it is projected to look like by the third or fourth decade of the 21st Century. It then will be a nonmajority population, with most of the population growth among nonwhites--primarily Latinos, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

Explicit Discussions

That scenario is discussed “quite explicitly,” says the Rev. Dr. Emmanuell McCall, 53, who directs the Black Church Extension division of the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board in Atlanta, which is responsible for evangelism and church growth in the United States and its territories.

“One of the things we try to do at the six Southern Baptist seminaries, and in ethics and other classes that deal with human behavior, is prepare pastors to counsel in a way that accepts that kind of diversity as a given in our society,” he said. “And then, be prepared to counsel people who intend to intermarry in a way that prepares them for the challenges without necessarily cautioning them against it.”

Further, says McCall, “we help to develop churches that would be open and supportive to anybody who may come into their midsts, rather than be exclusive.”

Theory and practice don’t always mesh, he agrees, but adds: “There has been and continues to be a widening acceptance of black and ethnic peoples” in every aspect of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Having come to this agency 21 years ago, I remember how very racist it was. As a black man who has come up through the ranks and gone high in the structure, and been able to bring others along with me, I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made. But I wouldn’t rest on any laurels. We still have a ways to go.”

Catholicism, like Judaism, is more concerned with issues of faith, not race, in intermarriages. The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Family Life offers extensive premarital counseling for Catholics. In the archdiocese, couples receive formal counseling, which may last one day, an evening or a weekend, said Father James C. Gehl, director of the Office of Family Life.

In the formal sessions, engaged couples can raise issues of concern to them, explains Gehl. More important, all couples meet several times with their parish priest and can explore more intimate matters in depth. “Interracial couples,” he says, “are still an exception, especially when you talk about color. A little more common when you talk about ethnic background, for example, an Oriental with an Anglo.”

Reminded that, too, constitutes an interracial couple, he says: “Yes, that’s true. I guess I’m thinking black-white. I haven’t seen as many of those, though they surely take place. And the church has no problem with that. But there are no specific points that we want to bring across in regard to interracial marriage.”

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops recently published a handbook for parish priests to use in pastoral premarriage counseling called “Faithful to Each Other Forever.” It does not cover interracial couples, Gehl says, adding, “That’s interesting. It’s an area of concern, but obviously the Catholic Church has not seen it as a major stumbling block. If it had been, no doubt it would have come out in this study.”

Roosevelt Brown, 40, is a black Christian married to a Jew. His two children are being raised Jewish. He has no plans to convert to Judaism and sees no problem in raising his children in a home with a dual religious identity--perhaps because he is not “tied to any religious dogma. And I believe in the Old Testament,” as do Jews, says the financial adviser.

Brown, his wife, Nancy, and children “pray to the same God.” There is no problem, he says. He was even one of the original board members of Temple Shir Shalom in Mar Vista, the Reform synagogue his family attends.

Shir Shalom’s rabbi, Neil Comess-Daniels, thinks the Brown children one day may confront problems from their growing up in a mixed-background family. But that’s because Roosevelt Brown has not converted to Judaism, not because he is black.

“The fact that he is black has never entered into anything here,” the rabbi says. “I think that’s because Reform Jews are sophisticated enough to know that Moses was a . . . lot blacker than I. Jesus probably looked like Anwar Sadat.”

Jews, says Comess-Daniels, did begin “as a people who were intent upon keeping their ‘racial purity’ intact. The early Biblical stories note how the founding fathers and mothers of the tradition wanted their own children to go back to their own family, in their own homeland and marry distant cousins rather than marry idol worshipers--the pagans they were living around. That perspective broke down when the Jews went into Egypt . . . because we came out as what is called the mixed multitude.”

During the “400 years we were supposedly enslaved in Egypt, there was a good deal of intermarriage going on and it was at least somewhat tolerated. That is the way some of us interpret the mixed multitude.”

Moses, he says, “was married to an Ethiopian.” As for Moses himself, “whatever race he was, we are not sure, because his mother and father were slaves and their racial background we don’t know.”

Whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, rabbis all state emphatically that race has never been a barrier to marriage between Jews. It’s not even considered an intermarriage, which Jews consider to be a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, says Conservative Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.

“There is no question in my mind that an Orthodox Jew would accept the marriage of a dark Yemenite and a Caucasian Jew, both being Jewish, as against a Jew marrying a Catholic, both being good-looking, blond, blue-eyed Caucasians, because there is a chance that the children would be lost to the Catholic or Christian tradition,” Dubin says.

As for Comess-Daniels’ interpretation of the “mixed-multitude,” Jack Simcha Cohen, an Orthodox rabbi and now president of the Los Angeles rabbis’ board, agrees with it--in part. There have been, he says, conversions to Judaism among “different nations and different races throughout the world.” So Jews are a mixed multitude. But “are we, by nature, a mixed racial and cultural lot? That’s a pretty high level of conjecture with zero possibility of demonstrative proof. Therefore, anybody who wants to can make any leap into the unknown, and that’s all it is.”

Because of the sense of “peoplehood” that exists among Jews--an ethnic identify that transcends religion--it can be difficult for a converted Jew to be fully accepted socially by other Jews, says Comess-Daniels.

African-Americans like Roosevelt Brown have their own sense of peoplehood and tradition, too, though it is possible to incorporate both the African-American and Jewish cultural traditions in a Jewish home, says Comess-Daniels. That is one of the many challenges in a pluralistic society, says the rabbi, sitting in his office in a building he shares with an Episcopal church.

Across the Centuries

He leans forward. He has a final story: Not long ago, a contingent of American Jews went to an Ethiopian province. “They landed in a jet, then took a five-seater plane, then they had to go by horseback and then walk.”

One among the Americans spoke Amharic and translated. “Where’s the synagogue?” he asked the Ethiopian Jews. They pointed to a hut that looked like all the others, only bigger.

“Is that the ark where the Torah is?” the translator asked. It was. “And what is your Torah portion for this week?” The translator started to cry, the rabbi said. The others asked him why. “We have not been connected with these people for centuries and it’s the same Torah portion . . . word for word.

“That’s what makes somebody Jewish. That connection, that vibration. There are Jews of all races.”

And nowhere is it written that a Jew, whatever color, should not marry a Jew.