Christian group aims to bring races together

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

RIDGELAND, Miss. (AP) -- Once the choir finished the hymn, the pastor eased behind the pulpit to point out visitors at Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church.

There was no need to do so. It was hard to miss the three white faces in the all-black congregation in Jackson.

Several miles away, at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, the scene was strikingly different.

Blacks and whites, from school-age youngsters to senior citizens, were standing huddled in a circle, heads bowed and eyes closed. The early morning prayer service was just ending, and Andy Beaird, a young, white man reached out his hand to introduce himself to Martha Turner, a 47-year-old black woman.

It is this kind of fellowship that brings a smile to face of Dolphus Weary, executive director of Mission Mississippi, an organization formed in 1993 to get Christians of all races to worship under the same roof.

''We are not about the business of trying to reconcile the whole community. We're specifically about the business of getting the church to reconcile across racial lines,'' Weary said.

Racial lines are sharp in churches across the country.

''Only about 10 percent of the congregations in the United States are integrated or interracial,'' said Mark Chaves, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, quoting findings of his National Congregations Study. The study, based on 1998 data, found 69 percent of congregations were almost all-white, 18 percent mostly black.

''People speak of the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday being the most segregated hour in the country, and they're right,'' said the Rev. Gus Shelley, the pastor of First United Methodist in Gulfport, a 1,500-member congregation that is predominantly white.

To move toward more diverse congregations, ministers first may need to determine why the races choose to stay separate when it comes to worship.

''There's not an easy answer,'' said Keith Harper, a professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

''Races stay separate in part because of lingering racism, but I think there's a very healthy dose of tradition, personal comfort levels and class assumptions,'' Harper said.

The nondenominational, Jackson-based Mission Mississippi has a prayer gathering twice a week, alternating between black and white churches and usually drawing about 50 people. The group also hosts a breakfast for businessmen once a month and various dinners.

''We're developing relationships and people are getting to know each other,'' Weary said. ''We're trying to break down stereotypes.''

Beaird, who is Presbyterian and has been a participant in Mission Mississippi for over a year, said unfortunately Christians ''have perpetuated a religion that is racist.''

Turner, who works with the Jackson Public Schools, said her involvement in Mission Mississippi has helped her ''make more of a commitment to God'' by meeting people of all races and denominations.

The nonprofit group operates on a $300,000 annual budget, garnered from donations from churches, individuals and small foundations. As part of another ministry some years ago, Weary traveled across the nation -- making stops in Seattle, Denver and Los Angeles -- preaching a message of reconciliation.

Though church segregation is a nationwide phenomenon, Weary said Mississippi, with its infamous history of racial strife, is now his focus. He said many in the state see one-race churches as a residue of the institutional segregation of the past, and they want to ''do something about it.''

However, it's difficult for any denomination to enforce a decree of integrated worship, said Harper, the Wake Forest professor.

''It's my perception that some churches have perhaps done a better job, but I can't give high marks to denominations,'' Harper said. ''I don't know if anyone has cornered the market on how to do that.''

In Terrell, Texas, two Baptist ministers -- one black, one white -- say they have found a formula for unity.

A railroad track separates the Rev. Bob Price's mainly white Cornerstone Baptist Church and the Rev. Clarence Robertson's mostly black congregation at New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church.

The two men began discussing racial reconciliation after a Ku Klux Klan march was planned in their town about eight years ago.

''That was the impetus that started Clarence and I to say, 'If they're coming to destroy relationships, there ought to be somebody to build relationships.'''

Since then, Price and Robertson have held joint services and socials, including a Thanksgiving program in which the two delivered the sermon as a team. The Southern Baptist Convention spotlighted the pastors at its recent meeting in Orlando, Fla.

''What has to happen for reconciliation to come about is that it has to start at the top,'' Price said. ''Clarence and I go to lunch together. We go to Rangers (baseball) games together. We do things in public so people can see it.

''I'm kind of sad that this is not the norm,'' Price said.

Price said the congregations have begun to follow their pastors' example, and people in the town of 15,000 sometimes seek advice from them on racial issues.

To Price, the key to ending segregation in the church is simple.

''It takes two guys that are willing to love each other, and that's it,'' he said.

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