'Where are all the Black people?': The racial divide in Prairie Christian churches
Some Christians on the Prairies want more diversity in their religious communities
This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black on the Prairies project here.
The racial make-ups of the church Serena Prescott attends today and the south-central Edmonton church where her father was pastor when she was growing up are as different as night and day.
"It was very much a Black church," she said, recalling the Black American-style preaching she grew up hearing at Edmonton Community Worship Hour, the church known as ECWH. "Think of Bishop T.D. Jakes — it would be like that— the singing, the choir, the movement. It was fun."
In 2016, a few years after her dad died, she was invited by a cousin to City Life, a non-denominational, predominantly white church of about 800 members in Leduc, Alta., about 20 kilometres south of Edmonton.
She would go on to meet her husband, Kaelan, at City Life. Kaelen is the son of the church's founding pastors. The two were married in 2019.
Although she was accepted with open arms, Prescott said the church still lacks racial diversity.
"I specifically asked them, like, 'Where are all the Black people?'" Prescott said. "And it's something that's actually bothered [Kaelan]'s parents for years."
I think that the more people become educated and realize that racism is still happening, it actually seems to get better.- Serena Prescott
Prescott is a descendent of the early Black Alberta immigrants who founded Amber Valley, the Prairies' largest early Black settlement, in the 1900s. It has been more than a century since her ancestors founded their own Black churches out of necessity.
The migration of Black diasporas to the Prairies in recent years is also changing the racial demographics of Prairie churches, but Christians in Alberta and Saskatchewan are still divided by race, said Calgary-based pastor and author Rohadi Nagassar.
"The infamous quote of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is, 'The most divided time in America is Sunday morning'," Nagassar said. "He said that in the '60s. But the data says nothing has changed. In fact, it's probably worse, in that churches are unequivocally divided along racialized lines, or ethnic lines."
Nagassar, whose work has focused on decolonization and decentering whiteness in Christianity, says the Prairie church lags behind the U.S. — and even other major centres in Canada such as Toronto and Vancouver — in terms of racial integration.
"We have created community for so long along racialized lines that we don't know how to do anything else," he said.
Prescott said her interracial marriage still draws some stares when she's out in the world, especially from people of older generations. She sees it as a sign of racism persisting on the Prairies.
She also sees a positive path forward.
"I think that the more people become educated and realize that racism is still happening, it actually seems to get better," Prescott said.
History of the Black Prairie church
Early Black churches on the Prairies served as platforms to address different forms of racism and discrimination in Canadian society, said David Este, adjunct professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary.
Este interviewed second- and third-generation descendants of Black families like Prescott's — who left the United States to come to Western Canada between 1905 and 1912 — for his film We are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies.
The Black church was "the pillar of strength within these communities," Este said.
When the Black people got rejected, they just went and worshipped.- Rebecca Johnson
In addition to providing entertainment, Black churches served as debating clubs and provided social activities.
Black churches were started out of necessity, Este said. Early Black migrants were not welcome in white churches, he said, and when they were allowed in they could not give any input into how the predominantly-white churches were run.
Este said there has been some positive change.
"I think some of these white churches have become more open to having individuals and families from different cultural groups," Este said. "I think that's a positive sign because they're not rejecting Black or other racialized groups that want to attend white churches."
Rebecca Johnson arrived in Edmonton from Toronto in 2012, at 25 years old. Two weeks later she did something a lot of newcomers do. She visited the iconic West Edmonton Mall.
The Ghanaian Canadian said she got a harsh introduction to the city when she was walking through the mall while texting.
"I bumped into a lady and looked up and I said, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry.' And she looked at me, and she was like, 'Whatever, n-word,'" Johnson said. "I remember going home and I was just sobbing and I was like, 'Mom, where are we? What is this?'"
Only nine years later, Edmonton feels completely different, Johnson said.
"I can go to the mall and see people that actually look like me now."
At first, Johnson thought she wouldn't be able to find community in the city. Then she found the Cornerstone Christian Church of God, a multi-ethnic church in east Edmonton.
She said Cornerstone pastor Emmanuel Adewusi recognized in her a God-given ability to speak. He invited her to make announcements at the church and encouraged her to be herself.
"I'm not like, 'Hey, hi. Welcome to Cornerstone Christian Church of God,'" Johnson said, toning down her natural gregarious style.
"I'm like, 'What's up, everyone? How are you doing? Can we give a clap for Jesus?!'
Johnson, now 33, was also inspired to start her own podcast, Speaking Arrangements.
"God used that church to save my life," Johnson said.
"That's why, just going back to history ... when the Black people got rejected, they just went and worshipped, to dance. And they were able to be free in the presence of the Lord."
Cornerstone, which has grown from 10 members to 150 since Johnson joined in 2012, is part of a movement toward an increasingly racially-integrated church on the Prairies. Congregations new and old — some long marked by segregation — have begun to reject exclusion.
When Cornerstone was started, its founders felt God telling them not to focus on singing predominantly African songs, Johnson said.
"It's for everyone," she said.
White Christian culture
In general, both old and new churches on the Prairies are not truly multi-ethnic, Nagassar said. They're either primarily for a particular ethnic group, or they're "normal" — which is really a white expression, he said — and almost exclusively led by white men.
Last summer, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Nagassar looked at the songs being sung in churches across North America, as reported to Christian Copyright Licensing International. Of the top 50 songs, only one was written by a person of colour.
Mainstream Christian radio is also primarily white. Way Maker, written by Nigerian gospel artist Sinach, has seen heavy play on Christian radio stations across North America — but only the version covered by white American Christian rock band Leeland.
Robert Orr, owner of Saskatoon's Free 100.3 FM, said his Christian radio station doesn't have a mandate to play music by racially-diverse artists.
"I'm not sure it does not reflect the population," Orr said. "But when I'm choosing songs or having my music guy choosing songs, we listen and hear, is it high-quality music and is it high-quality lyrics? And if it is, then we put it on."
Orr described the station's genre as Christian "pop."
"Of course there's Black gospel that isn't necessarily our genre, but if it's close enough we'll certainly play it."
Johnson said she is a fan of Edmonton's mainstream Christian radio station 105.9 Shine FM, but would like to hear a wider variety of musical styles.
"If there's somebody that does other types of music that really wants to be played on the radio, and that's what God has called them to do … and then there's this guy who's like, 'No, you don't fit what we do here,' it's a form of rejection," Johnson said. "That's not love. That's not what God wants for us at all."
She said expanding musical styles on Sunday morning and on the radio is a crucial component to achieving a diverse and equitable church.
"I'm not sure what God is telling [Shine FM]. I'm not sure what's happening, I don't know who works there. But I definitely do feel like there should be a mixture of everything," Johnson said.
Shine FM did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
'Finding unity in diversity'
Nagassar — who is West Indian, Chinese and Japanese — used to be a pastor for a well-known evangelical denomination. He left last year after it took the position that clergy can't perform same-sex unions.
He founded Calgary's Cypher Church, which bills itself as "A church for the dreamers, innovators, artists, and outsiders."
He said he believes all Christians on the Prairies can come together in truly multi-ethnic expressions.
"I'm biased, because I don't fit in any of them because I am multi-ethnic," he said.
"I don't fully belong. So there's got to be a space where we can — the church can — look more like … the urban centres, and in that, they are capable of finding unity in diversity."
Both Nagassar and Johnson said the church still has a long way to go toward inclusion of both racial and sexual minorities.
"I feel like the church has always represented community and it's failed sometimes at representing community, but that's what God made it for, for us to commune with him but as a body," Johnson said.
The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.