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A black pastor in Birmingham, Alabama is making headlines for encouraging his congregants not to attend white churches with a sign that reads, rather bluntly, “Black folks need to stay out of white churches.”

New Era Baptist Church is located in the West End section of Birmingham, one of the blackest areas in one of the blackest cities in America. The church is pastored by the Rev. Michael R. Jordan, who is known for his activism, which some people say borders on trolling.

Michael Jordan (yes, that’s his name) is now being accused of “reverse racism,” though that’s a hard sell in this case. It’s not that he’s opposed to racial integration. He actually has a compelling reason for making his statement: A new mostly-white megachurch, led by a black pastor, was coming to the community, and he’s worried that smaller mostly-black churches will suffer as a result. He’s also concerned that the new church will get support from the city (violating church/state separation, though that’s another issue), taking money away from black organizations in the community.

He explained all this to

“Because of white flight and societal change where whites left the city, they did not want to be our neighbors, did not want their kids to go to school with our children,” Jordan said. “They left the churches too. They sold the churches to us. White folks don’t want to be our neighbors. If you don’t want to be our neighbor, why do you feel comfortable putting a white church in the inner city? Their response is we will have a black pastor. He’ll be a token. They’ll still control the sermons, they’ll still control the choir, the white administrative leadership will still run the church.”

“Blacks have flooded white churches and moved into white neighborhoods,” Jordan said. “It’s for status reasons. It’s a sense of self-worth. But 99 percent of whites won’t go to a black church.”

That’s a fair point. What does it say about the Christianity at large when black worshipers will attend a white church but it rarely happens the other way around?

For those reasons, the mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, was wrong to condemn Jordan’s sign as embodying the “spirit of racism.” Woodfin missed the whole point.

Like Woodfin, other critics have called Jordan’s tactics divisive, but it seems to me that Jordan is bringing attention to a division that’s already there — and has been there for hundreds of years. Strong rhetoric aside, the conversation he wants to start is one that Christians really ought to be having.