Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?

Sunday morning remains the most segregated time in America. How some Evangelicals are bridging the divide

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Matthew Gilson for TIME

At Willow Creek, people of different ethnicities worship together

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Still, observers inside and outside Willow applaud him. David Anderson, founder of the multicultural Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Md., says, "I bet they've done it faster and better than anyone else with a church that large starting off as all white." When I ask Hybels how important racial reconciliation is to Christianity, he says, "It's absolutely core to the Gospel. It speaks to whether all humans are made in the image of God and have the capability of being redeemed and used by God to perform his work. I'm going to persevere on this for the rest of my life." In December, Willow announced that 80% of its Hispanic attendees were undocumented and had a speaker give a talk explaining "God's heart on immigrants," a positive biblical analysis. Harvey Carey, pastor to a vibrant mixed-race congregation in Detroit, did a stint as a guest preacher.

Some think the integration of American churches is inevitable. Willow Creek Association head Jim Mellado cites the Census Bureau projection that by 2050 the U.S. will contain no racial majority. "Every church will have to deal with that or find itself on the side of the road," he says. Hybels differs, saying that "there will still be people who will only want to worship amongst their own kind."

Yet there is one part of Willow already living 2050. It is not the sanctuary. At Promiseland, Willow's vast Sunday-school complex, Jim and Ellen Strasma wrangle a band of 2-year-olds: seven Caucasians, a Caucasian-Asian, six Hispanics, an Indian American and an African American. A boy in a T-shirt and sporty maroon track pants shares a miniature plastic baguette with a ponytailed Latina. He looks like a preschool Bill Hybels, yet one of his parents is Asian American. The Indian-American girl and the African-American girl dance together. As pickup time approaches, Ms. Ellen explains that Jesus loves everyone. Sixteen small faces of various hues gaze up at her. God wants them all to be friends, she concludes — but the message seems superfluous. Here, today, Martin Luther King Jr.'s observation about Sunday school is finally refuted. In one room of one huge church striving to do the right thing, the harmony of His kingdom has already arrived.

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