It took us 300 years to separate ourselves like this," says Spencer Perkins, coauthor of More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, in reference to the longstanding racial divisions in America. "It's going to take a while to undo that."

As a black Christian leader, Perkins counts himself among the sober realists who are facing up to the challenge of making American society, its churches, and Christian institutions free of racism and discrimination.

With the country's rising tide of political conservatism, affirmative-action programs designed to remedy the effects of past discrimination are under sharp scrutiny by judges, politicians, and activists.

In California, a citizens group hopes to place on the 1996 ballot a measure that would outlaw preferential treatment in hiring, contractual agreements, school enrollments, and other areas for any group.

In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court last month allowed to stand the verdicts of two recent racially charged court decisions. In one verdict, a judge voided a quota for black Birmingham firefighters, designed to increase promotions. In the second case, a jury handed out a damage award of $425,000 to a white Pennsylvania engineer who was passed over for promotion in favor of a less-qualified black man.

On the political front, many Republican candidates for the 1996 presidential nomination have vowed major changes in government-mandated, affirmative-action efforts. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) has gone so far as to pledge the program's elimination.

Among Christian institutions, there has been no similarly binding legal mandate to resolve the effects of past discrimination. But with racial reconciliation efforts gaining momentum in the evangelical community, Christian leaders find themselves searching for reasonable initiatives to promote the goals of expanding opportunities for racial minorities.

However, they are not looking to government as an outstanding role model. The harshest critics of government-sponsored affirmative-action programs assert that some of those who benefit from the program are "stigmatized" for receiving preferential treatment. In addition, critics allege that affirmative action has the potential to weaken organizations that place less-qualified candidates into positions of prominence and responsibility.

SOCIAL, RACIAL DIVIDE: Minority leaders who are Christian say the goal of racial integration will be advanced when minority workers are hired and promoted for their abilities, not because of guilty consciences among whites.

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In understanding the racial divide in America, the role of the historic social divide between the races cannot be underestimated. "We've done a very efficient job of separating ourselves along racial lines," says Perkins, who also serves as editor of Urban Family magazine in Jackson, Mississippi. "You might bump into each other in the workplace, but anything private tends to be [split] along racial lines."

Longstanding social division along color lines gives rise to misunderstanding in a profound way. "If you scratch deep enough on any African American, you find someone who is seeking in some sense to be free," says Melvin Banks, chief executive officer of Chicago's Urban Ministries. "White people come with the assumption that 'I am free.' "

Among blacks, there remains a keen awareness that discrimination is alive and well in America. A March Gallup Poll of 1,220 adults, conducted for CNN/USA Today, showed that half of all blacks believe they have encountered some form of job discrimination. The poll also found that 55 percent of Americans-including 72 percent of blacks-favor affirmative-action programs for minorities and women. While only 35 percent of all Americans believe businesses should establish quotas to make up for past discrimination, 63 percent of blacks favor such policies.

CHRONIC FRUSTRATION: For racial minorities, there is a chronic sense of frustration, combined with a perceived backsliding in race relations. One prominent California evangelical fears that American society is embracing a "lifeboat ethic," abandoning anyone who is not as fast, smart, or as helpful as others.

"There seems to be compassion fatigue for people with differences," says Jesse Miranda, associate dean for urban and ethnic concerns at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University's Graduate School of Theology. He says efforts to push English-only language laws and elimination of affirmative action are evidence that economic concerns dominate the political process, not compassionate concern for the disadvantaged.

However, Harold O. J. Brown, professor of Christian ethics at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, says the affirmative-action debate represents a long-overdue reassessment of national policy gone awry.

"The idea of imposed regulation by the government seems hostile to the Christian ideal of doing good to individuals. I don't think you can appeal to the government to make your decisions for you," Brown says.

In addition, Brown is critical of gender-based affirmative action, which ignores differences between the sexes and "goes against God's realm of nature." He suggests that race-based affirmative action can redress some past injustice, "but that's mostly done."

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Others disagree with conservative opinion makers such as Brown and warn that a failure to deal with racial discrimination will have long-lasting economic consequences. "In 20 to 30 years," Miranda says, "these [minorities] are the people who are going to be paying for social security. If they don't get the training and the education, how are they going to pay for others' retirement and the national debt?"

Many defenders of affirmative-action efforts argue that their programs avoid the pitfalls of workers being stigmatized or the underqualified being promoted.

"I think people can sometimes feel that they were not the best candidate," says Kermit Ecklebarger, vice president and academic dean at Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary. "But we are not going to pass over an excellent candidate just to get someone for our affirmative-action program."

Ecklebarger says his school operates toward the goal of increasing its percentage of female and minority faculty. "Our principle," he says, "is that if we have two people who are of equal quality, we will choose the person from the underrepresented group."

A UNIFIED BODY: Christian organizations vary in their approaches to expanding the presence of minority workers within their ranks. Few organizations have taken the step of formulating detailed policies, but rather they attempt to increase staff diversity through more informal means.

Yet some, such as the Promise Keepers men's movement, have made racial reconciliation a central concern. One of the seven principles in the Promise Keepers' pledge is for Christian men to reach beyond racial barriers. "Christ is commanding us to be of one heart and mind," says Tom Fortson, vice president of human resources for Promise Keepers.

Of Promise Keepers' 200 employees, 14 percent are African American, 11 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian (12 percent of the population are black, 9 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are Asian). Promise Keepers stresses that it bases its actions not on national affirmative-action goals, but on a commitment to the "oneness of the body of believers."

When there is a staff opening at Promise Keepers, supervisors are expected to include minorities in the candidate pool. Similarly, when Promise Keepers planned a new office building, it required contractors to include minority subcontractors.

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Overall, evangelicalism has anything but a flawless track record for progress in combating racism. "In the evangelical community it's not a core value," Fortson says. "No one is holding them accountable."

VOLUNTARY ACTION: Eastern College near Philadelphia, a city that is 50 percent black, did not need federal prompting to push for racial diversity among its students and faculty. The school could not train future pastors if its students did not understand the varied cultures that they would find on the streets, school officials say.

Eastern president Roberta Hestenes says one of the school's first steps was to do away with past discriminatory practices, such as use of "old-boy" networks in hiring. Second, the school established a principle of hiring qualified candidates, regard-less of racial or ethnic status. Eastern neither uses quotas nor makes diversity the determining factor in hiring faculty.

In addition, the college's administration has labored to expand the black student population fivefold from 3 percent in 1990. Because the school's overall enrollment numbers have increased in recent years, Hestenes says, nothing has been "taken away from white males."

"We celebrate both the value of distinct cultures and our oneness in Christ," she says. She points to the paucity of minorities and women in leadership roles in the evangelical community as compelling evidence that "we have a long way to go before we even come close to fairness."

Research by Taylor University's Jack Letarte for the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) shows that the organization's 90 member schools are making progress in minority enrollment, which rose to 18,132 last year from 12,039 in 1988. The figures represent 14 percent of total enrollment in 1994, compared to 11.8 percent six years earlier. In the same span, Hispanic enrollment nearly doubled at CCCU schools, from 1,780 to 3,544, while black enrollment rose from 4,360 to 6,680, and Asian enrollment climbed from 2,309 to 3,288.

CREATING CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY: As Christian institutions become more racially diverse, they will come face to face with another challenge: How to redevelop and maintain authentic unity within their ranks.

Michael Mata, chair of urban ministry at the School of Theology at Claremont, near Los Angeles, has come to terms with this new challenge of reformulating Christian unity in a multiethnic context. As a member of the school's affirmative-action committee, Mata-who also is an associate pastor at the multiethnic, multicultural Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene-acknowledges that the United Methodist school was led to change in part because 140 nationalities exist in greater Los Angeles.

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"There is a concerted and intentional effort to create a sense of community, which is very different from just trying for diversity," Mata says. The school attempts to reach students from differing backgrounds by employing faculty who reflect the distinctive ethnic and theological traditions of its student body.

Mata believes the church is the only societal institution with core values that focus on the work of reconciliation between races and individuals as well as to God. "It's going to behoove the church to take a stronger stance and confirm what God has created-and that is a very rich and diverse world," Mata says. "We just don't know how to do it."

BALLOT BOX THREAT: While seminaries, local churches, and other Christian organizations work to expand opportunities for minorities, a swiftly developing current in national politics may sweep away existing affirmative-action efforts.

The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), written and promoted for the statewide ballot by Glynn Custred and Tom Wood, two conservative California professors, reads: "Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State's system of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

According to opinion surveys, the ballot initiative has the initial support of nearly 70 percent of Californians.

To Custred, the reasons for the widespread antipathy toward affirmative action are clear. "The policies that we have today are pervasive and are spreading everywhere," he says. "They are weakening our institutions, and they cause a stigma for those who are supposed to be helped by it."

Custred predicts that doing away with affirmative-action programs would lower government costs by $1 billion during a five-year-span. CCRI's authors say their referendum is adaptable to other states. Right now, CCRI leaders are linking up nationally like-minded groups to help with the push.

CCRI needs more than one million signatures to be placed on the statewide ballot, though the California Legislature may also vote to place it on the ballot next year.

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If the California initiative succeeds, it may trigger a domino effect across the nation, in which affirmative-action mandates will fall one after the other.

Such a result may turn into an area of new ministry for Christian leaders whose organizations have successfully expanded opportunities for minorities while avoiding the hazards of government mandates.

As Christian leaders work to end institutional discrimination, they say several concepts are key to making progress, including:

* The importance of expanding an institution's horizon of ministry.

* The need to foster deeper personal relationships among whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other minorities.

* A rigorous focus on recruitment centered on individual ability and talent.

* A persistent outreach beyond an organization's "comfort zone."

Leaders attest that these concepts assist in the work of reconciling the races. Perkins is the first to point out that reconciliation should first "take root" in the local church and warns that the progress is bound to be painstakingly slow.


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