Minister serves two churches -- one white, the other black

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2002

COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Every Sunday at 10:45 a.m., the Rev. Frank Horton delivers his sermon at First United Methodist Church.

Fifteen minutes later, still in his robes, he dashes four blocks across town to the pulpit at Ninth Street Methodist Church to deliver the same sermon.

This is the way it's been in the more than two years, ever since Horton took on the task of trying to breathe new life into two dwindling downtown congregations -- one predominantly white, the other predominantly black.

''I think it was different for the congregation at first,'' Horton, who is black, said of his reception at mostly white First United Methodist. ''But it's worked out well.''

Horton, 64, is being honored by both churches as he preaches his final sermons leading up to his retirement in June.

''My husband calls Frank's services 'Horton's hug-in' because he hugs everyone in that chapel before he leaves,'' said Edna Donsback, a longtime member of First United Methodist.

Horton, who spent 20 years as a missionary in Africa, is the first black minister at First United Methodist though he's not the first to share his role with Ninth Street Methodist. The two churches shared a white minister in the 1970s, when there was a shortage of black ministers.

Horton was hired in 1999 to recruit members at each church. The pews at both churches are now half-full, with an average of 35 congregants each Sunday.

''Downtown church populations are dwindling everywhere,'' Horton said. ''People are going out to suburban churches that have youth groups and many activities. Most inner-city churches, like both of mine, have a small, older population.''

The two congregations are the oldest Methodist churches in this Ohio River city: President Ulysses S. Grant and his parents were members of First United. Horton's sermon on a recent Sunday included a plea for the congregants to bring in new people.

''I've seen these seats full and I've seen them empty,'' Donsback said. ''But we're getting back on track. Rev. Horton is helping us build new leadership which will help with recruiting members.''

Horton said the idea of combining the two churches was discussed, but he doesn't think it will happen. ''They're just two different congregations that are proud of each of their churches and their history,'' he said.

A native of Fairmont, W. Va., Horton was active in church as a child and said he accepted Jesus as his savior during a revival in West Virginia when he was 17 years old.

When he turned 18, Horton enlisted in the Navy. A few years later, he felt the time he was spending at sea was hurting his marriage so he left and enlisted in the Air Force. While stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1960 he decided to become a minister.

''It was this feeling -- it's hard to explain -- it was a feeling of dissatisfaction with my life and the way it was going. I needed a new path,'' he said. ''I was licensed as a minister that same year.''

Horton and his wife, Carolyn, moved back to West Virginia, where he became the campus minister for Marshall University. In 1977, he was asked to chaperone three seminary students to Liberia for the summer.

''The seminary was going to pay my expenses, so of course I went -- and loved it,'' he said.

The following year, Horton was asked to become the acting president of the seminary he had visited in Africa the previous summer. Horton took the three-year job and which led to his missionary work and a two-decade career in Liberia.

''During those 20 years I went all around the country teaching evangelistic workshops and holding crusades,'' Horton said. ''We lived through five military coups. But God was with me. I knew he would protect me.''

In 1999, the couple returned to the United States after Carolyn -- who is also a missionary -- fell ill and had to have one leg amputated. That's when the Methodist bishop assigned Horton to northern Kentucky.

Horton said the message of his sermons remains the same for both congregations each Sunday, though he acknowledges the music and his style of language change from church to church.

He incorporates some of what he learned in Africa into the services. First United Methodist has added bongo drums, a traditional church instrument in Africa, into its band; Ninth Street parishioners pray in a group at the front of the church, much like African congregations.

After retiring, Horton plans to split his time between Africa and the United States.

''I made a decision long ago to work for God,'' he said. ''I've felt satisfaction and joy ever since.''

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