People laughing in front of church

Left to right, Kenny, Rachel, Quinlin, Bonnie, Nicole, and Tim gather outside Faith Christian Fellowship after a Sunday service in July.

In 1968, four days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon in which he called eleven o’clock on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in America.”

Over thirty years later, even the most integration-minded churches still struggle to cross the cultural divides that keep Christians worshipping apart.

Last summer, I spent time among three mixed-race congregations in Baltimore, hoping to understand the challenges that today’s multicultural churches face. Baltimore, it seemed to me, was a good place to look. According to 2000 census estimates, Baltimore is 64 percent black and 31 percent white, with growing populations of Latinos and immigrants—a diverse metropolis, whose friendly atmosphere makes it the most Southern of Northern cities.

I soon found out, however, that the multicultural church movement has more than a few obstacles to overcome here. Many residents today describe Baltimore as a black and white city, not just for its demographics, but also for its history of racial conflict, which still plays out today in segregated neighborhoods, segregated schools, and segregated churches. Mutual suspicions run deep. Riots rocked Baltimore after King’s assassination, accelerating white flight. Renewal programs supported by the city government have rejuvenated areas such as the now-touristy downtown harbor and nearby Fells Point, but have generally failed to improve life in many black neighborhoods.

Three decades after the civil rights movement broke the color line at workplaces and lunch counters, the designation “multicultural” still raises eyebrows in Baltimore’s Christian community. The three congregations I got to know were fighting against this attitude, and were finding, despite all their good intentions, that building a racially diverse church is still no easy matter.

Not a ‘White’ Church

On a summer Sunday morning in Pen-Lucy, a struggling neighborhood on the northeast side of town, two thirty-something women walk down the sidewalk, arms encircling each other’s waists. One is black, the other white. They enter the church’s foyer through a stone archway built long ago, by a wealthier congregation. A tacked-on sign in upbeat, modern type announces the building’s current occupancy by “Faith Christian Fellowship.” The two friends stand in line to fill out nametags before searching for seats in the nearly full sanctuary. The music kicks in, and the multicolored “worship team” leads a gospel rendition of “Like A River Glorious.” The crowd of about 250 begins to respond, as variously as their many shades. Some clap and shake their hips, while others sit calmly nodding their head in time to the drums.

Pastor Stan Long says services weren’t always so inspiring. Visiting Faith in the early 1990s, he found the church “still struggling to get it together.” But he was greeted with change when he visited again, in 1999: “There were a lot more people, a lot more mixed people, the music was clearly more alive.” Long was so impressed that he quit his job as head pastor of a predominantly African American congregation across town to become co-pastor at Faith, which is explicitly multicultural, with an emphasis on racial reconciliation. It was good timing, as the church needed a black leader.

He and Craig Garriott, his white co-pastor, ask to meet with me as a pair. Long, whose curly hair is just beginning to whiten, is genial, quick to talk and laugh at the frustrations of running a multicultural ministry. Garriot’s thinning hair is blond, and he draws out his words, sometimes pausing to peer through his glasses. Both are in their late forties; both have five children. They’ve known each other for twenty years: Long was working for InterVarsity, a national Christian organization that focuses on college students, when he met Garriott, whose college group was doing a summer urban project at Faith. That was 1981; Faith was founded just a year before. But their current partnership is barely two years old. It is part of Faith’s attempt to attract more blacks to what some from the African American community call “a white church.”

Garriott calls the staff of Faith “intentionally diverse.” Indeed, he uses the word “intentional” like a mantra. It explains Faith’s struggles to address racial disparities by carefully monitoring the church’s leadership, worship styles, and even small group demographics. Before they got “intentional,” the church found that the covenant groups were self-segregating along race and class lines. So the church broke up the groups and started over, emphasizing the goals of reconciliation and diversity. Garriott insists there was “no quota system, [no] engineering system.” Now, the groups can no longer be characterized as white intellectual, African American, or blue collar. They’ve achieved a mix of people that’s echoed in the larger congregation—about 30 percent black, 30 percent Asian, and 40 percent white.

Garriott is surprised when Long says that black churches in the neighborhood don’t appreciate Faith’s multiculturalism. “You think they see us as a white church?” he asks.

“There’s no category for multicultural churches,” Long says. Even if a church has both black and white leadership, he explains, the tendency is for the black community to see the white person as the real leader. When sharing the platform with whites, he says, African American leaders are suspect—ingratiating Uncle Toms.

This barrier of historically unequal black/white relationships is why Long is excited to see the middle-class black families who’ve started coming to Faith. “You can’t have a church that’s truly a diverse community where there’s real dignity if the middle-class community is white and the blacks are poor.”

When they bought the current building in 1983, Faith’s founders felt its location on the border of two very different neighborhoods in North Baltimore would provide valuable racial diversity. Long’s concept of “true” diversity has become a concern only more recently. Because the church draws from both prosperous Guilford, near Johns Hopkins University, and distressed Pen-Lucy, examples of economic parity between the races are hard to come by.

In part because of its strong contingent of people from “outside,” the church is still struggling to attract members from the Pen-Lucy community. Faith’s Christian elementary school and sports programs are major avenues of recruitment for neighborhood kids and their parents. Faith also recently created a non-profit organization to focus on community development projects.

One of the biggest draws, however, is the music. Though the mix includes classical and contemporary, gospel is clearly the most crucial in attracting and retaining black families. The biggest problem facing an upcoming move to two services was scheduling so that the drummer could play at both.

Patty Prasada-Rao, a member of Faith since 1994, worries that the church is still not doing enough to locate itself as a community church: “It can be discouraging if … you see mostly white faces or Asian faces because it draws a lot of Hopkins students.” Because of these “outsiders,” she describes it as a regional church focused on community development rather than a community church.

A former Hopkins student herself, Prasada-Rao is now director of resource development at the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an organization struggling to define itself as community-based. The Habitat where she works was started by another multicultural church in Baltimore, a much smaller one called New Song.

Multicultural mural

A mural two blocks south of New Song suggests black/white partnerships within the community, July 2001.

Singing a New Song

Pastor Thurman Williams likes to joke about meeting people and explaining he’s from New Song, a church of about fifty members in West Baltimore. New Psalmist! they exclaim, and pile high praise on the gifted brother.

There are many reasons to mistake him for a preacher from one of the oldest and most prestigious black churches in the city. Though only in his early thirties, he has the charismatic presence of a seasoned minister. And though he grew up in middle-class, suburban D.C., he exchanges greetings easily as we walk the streets of Sandtown. He calls, “Hey ladies,” or “Hey bro’, how’re you?” as he passes people cooling off on their stoops.

He’s made this neighborhood—one of the poorest in the city—his home for almost two years. He lives in the row house where the church was founded in 1988. (New Song has since moved to a larger building three blocks away.) It’s there that I meet his wife Evie, toting infant son Joshua. Williams’s family itself is a multicultural church success story. He met Evie, a member of New Song, before becoming pastor there in 2000. Although she is white, her presence in the mostly black neighborhood is accepted, and Joshua is passed from lap to lap at church. In a neighborhood where Williams says most churches are “comprised of folks who drive in and drive back out—people that grew up here and left,” his commitment is a cornerstone of New Song’s plan. “We wanted to be a church for people right here,” he explains.

Across the street is the neighborhood pool, thronged with kids battling the summer heat. Pointing up the street, five houses down, Williams shows where, just yesterday, men shot at a church member’s home. The kids at the pool dove to the ground in fear. But the streets are busy again today, the pool is full. Business is as usual at the nearby Habitat office, Health Center, and Learning Center, all established by New Song with numerous grants.

These neighborhood resources are all part of New Song’s three R’s: Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution. The first principle can be especially challenging. When New Song’s white founders, Allan Tibbels, wife Susan, and friend Mark Gornik, moved to Sandtown fifteen years ago, people were not welcoming, believing them to be narcs, or maybe just crazy. Now, after earning the trust of the community and bringing millions of dollars in resources and services, their own kids have the neighborhood lingo down.

Sylvia Simmons is a black church member who moved her two daughters from East Baltimore to Sandtown; she became a Habitat homeowner there in 1992. Now in her mid-thirties, she’s seen a man shot and killed, escaped gunfire next to her house, and had a co-worker injured by crossfire while making a phone call—all since the move. Yet she remains committed to the neighborhood, arguing, “When will the rebuilding start, how can it start, if we all run away?”

Simmons’s loyalty stems from her close ties to New Song. Her current job as a medical assistant, as well as her home, were gleaned from close ties to the church. “I saw the good that was being done and I was a recipient of that,” she says. Yet when her small Pentecostal fellowship decided in 1992 to combine services with New Song, a Presbyterian Church of America, it was difficult at first. “We were used to the shouting and the jumping and being very active in the service and this was totally different, very reserved,” she says.

The process of both congregations adapting to each other was gradual and difficult. “I cried through it and I prayed about it and was puzzled about it and I looked at my pastor initially like, ‘Why did you do this? And why are we here?'” she says. One of Simmons’s greatest and most difficult realizations, she says, was that “God has other sheep.” Her denomination was not the only one that was Christian. She refers to Acts 2, describing the day of Pentecost, on which tongues of fire appeared and a crowd of men speaking different languages miraculously understood each other. This scene is the model of many churches attempting to claim a multicultural status, and is often cited as Biblical proof of God’s approval.

“The racial thing is what will continue to eat at you ’til you leave here, if you’re allowed to,” Simmons acknowledges. New Song’s leadership still struggles with mistrust. Placing more power in the hands of community members and addressing longstanding inequalities are constant issues. “We want to feel as blacks in this community that we have the freedom still to know what’s best for us and have that respected,” she explains.

At Habitat, Prasada-Rao sometimes groans under the burden of black/white misunderstanding. Indian American and dark-skinned, Prasada-Rao often finds herself in the position of mediator, a bridge between black and white in Baltimore.

There’s not a day that goes by at work that’s free from racial issues. Disagreements may not get trumpeted in church on Sundays. But during the week, at the various centers started by New Song, hurt feelings and resentment announce themselves. At times Patty wishes reconciliation didn’t take so long. “I wish I could say to the white folks I know, ‘Because you come from this perspective you have no idea what it’s like,'” she says. “I wish I could say to the black folks I know, ‘Not everyone has it out for you … not every comment that is made is a racial slur.'”

Getting beyond Color-Blindness

But patience is crucial in the multicultural church business. So is a large measure of forgiveness. Michael Coles has learned both lessons, the hard way.

Coles, in his late forties, is the first African American pastor at Seventh Baptist, a browning church on the corner of St. Paul and North Avenue. Seventh Baptist is not his first multicultural flock. After graduating from seminary, Coles and his best friend at the time, who is white, started a multicultural church in Columbia, Maryland. When his co-pastor was disqualified for misconduct, Coles found that some members of the congregation were not ready to accept him as the sole leader of the church. Though they were willing to hug him on Sundays, Coles says, “I had people come up to me and say, ‘I just can’t sit under a black preacher.'”

It took Coles time to get over his bitterness, especially toward white Christians. But since 1996, he has taken pride in leading Seventh Baptist, a church that didn’t allow black people to sit on its outside steps in the 1930s and 1940s. Warm and voluble, he offers an easygoing pat on the back and sometimes a grandfatherly “Be good” as he says goodbye to congregants. At the same time, he responds to questions with take-it-or-leave-it candor. Some white members of the congregation have found his coming unpalatable. He is not surprised.

Coles chuckles at the rhetorical questions put by those advocating color-blindness, mimicking their air of innocence with a smooth drawl: “Why can’t we all just get along together? Why can’t we just be Church?” He responds, “I believe one of the most racist statements that anyone can say is that God does not see color, because if God does not see color, then he made an awful mistake.” His laughter booms—”an awful mistake.” For Coles, seeing and acknowledging differences is a first step toward tolerance.

Coles’s anti-color-blind approach is to discuss divisive subjects in the open and to challenge perceptions. He replaced the old Sunday School curriculum with texts targeted at urban and African American congregations. He brought up the O.J. Simpson trial in a sermon, before an audience that is usually about 60 percent black and 40 percent white.

Betty Strand, seventy-nine, has been going to Seventh Baptist since 1940, when it was almost entirely white. Since then, whites have fled Baltimore, and the area around the church has grown darker. Strand, who is white, approved of hiring of a black pastor to attract more people from the surrounding neighborhood.

She knows some people who left because of Coles’s race and because of the church’s changing worship style, with its new emphasis on gospel. Of those who remain, she says, “We think an awful lot of Pastor Mike. He’s a down-to-earth Bible preaching minister, who doesn’t mince words.”

Coles will need all his evangelistic skills to face the challenges of staying multicultural on North Avenue, a street many associate with abandoned homes, drug deals, and even homicides. He will have to hold on to a nucleus of white families, even as he convinces neighbors that Seventh Baptist has divorced its racist past, and that the local rumor, “Mike is pastoring a white church,” is simply not true.

He accepts the challenge with a certain enjoyment, and sees his unique position as an advantage. When white folk, interested in helping, ask, “What can I do?” he sees other black pastors responding, “We don’t need you.” Coles is happy to end the impasse and accept resources from outside his church and city. In return, he offers suburban congregations the opportunity to overcome their negative perceptions. He describes a recent visit by a white Baptist congregation: “We had a group come up, their expectation was that someone was going to get hurt, someone was going to possibly die, their things were going to get stolen … at the end of the week, they were so blessed to realize there are good people here. They went back home with a 180-degree [different] idea of what the city was all about.”

In Baltimore, integrating the most segregated hour in America remains a sought-after dream. “It’s just not very clean or smooth, it’s very messy,” says New Song’s Thurman Williams. “There’s always something coming up that let’s you know there’s issues that haven’t been dealt with.” Patty Prasada-Rao agrees. “It’s hard, it feels impossible, but I believe that it’s important, it’s what God wants. If you can’t do it in the church, it’s going to be hopeless to do it anywhere else,” she says.

I visit New Song’s service on a hot July Sunday. Two blocks from a basketball court where men are warming up for a game, I find a small congregation of about thirty-five people. A third are white, a third are kids of both colors talking intently or teasing each other. A doctor from the Health Center, her daughter, and her husband are the lone Asian family. Sylvia Simmons has promised me an un-Presbyterian style of worship: “Lots of upbeat music, clapping and stomping.” The low hubbub quiets for a moment of silence. On the front wall, behind the electronic keyboard that serves as an organ, there is a sentence spelled out in puffy, sparkling letters: “Nothing is too hard for God.”

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