“The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.”
More than 50 years have passed since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made this oft-repeated declaration. With time, the remnants of the Jim Crow-mandated segregation faded, yielding to evidence both tangible and abstract of racial equality.
The house of God, however, continues to be a place of de facto segregation.
At least 80 percent of churchgoers in 2012 worshipped in a place where a single race or ethnic group made up 80 percent of the congregation, according to the latest data from the National Congregations Study. The study was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent social survey research organization, with funding from a host of research and educational institutions.
Frederick County is no exception, at least according to the Rev. Paul Foss, a pastor at Damascus Road Community Church in Mount Airy.
“I don’t think things have changed very much since [King’s] statement,” Foss said.
His church’s congregation, for example, is predominantly white — “embarrassingly so,” Foss said in an interview in June.
A group of local pastors, including Foss, are attempting to change that.
Seven men began meeting about a year ago with the intent to bridge the racial divide in the community, starting with their own congregations. Five pastors are white and two are black. They represent six Frederick County churches, some in the city and others in the rural reaches of the county. Some congregations are predominantly white, others majority black and still others somewhere in between. The services across each differ in style and tradition.
Yet all share the same Evangelical Christian beliefs in a kingdom where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female,” as stated in the Epistle to the Galations 3:28. And the pastors see that commonality as the foundation upon which they hope to build a cross-cultural church community, starting with themselves.
“We are all a part of the body of Christ, and that’s what brings us together,” said the Rev. Jonathan Switzer, pastor at Crossroads Valley Church in Frederick. His congregation is predominantly white, but Crossroads is part of a wider network of churches that reflect a more diverse community of worshippers, Switzer said.
A new perspective
Each Wednesday afternoon, the group gathers at the Panera Bread on Urbana Pike just south of Frederick. There’s no agenda for their meetings; conversation range from national politics to instances of racism closer to home. A racial slur spray-painted on a car in Ballenger Creek dominated discussion at a May meeting.
Foss referred to the idiom about walking a mile in a man’s shoes as the purpose for the meetings.
“We think conversation, where we can hear each other’s point of view, is going to do a lot for our understanding,” Foss said.
He never considered, for example, what the Rev. Darren Gerald has experienced as a black pastor promoting diversity among his congregants at Strongtower Christian Church in Frederick.
“I’ve been called an Oreo before,” Gerald admitted, referring to a slur used to describe a black person who acts white.
Other times, the group’s talk turns to their own personal histories or experiences with race. The Rev. Ronnie Henry, senior pastor of Hope Christian Fellowship Church in Adamstown, once shared stories from his childhood as an African-American living in South Carolina in the civil rights era.
He reiterated one of his most vivid memories from that time in a phone interview. He was at a doctor’s office, one he had visited many times in the past. He entered through the back door and sat beside his mother in the metal folding chairs lined in the black patients’ waiting room. As he walked down the hall to the patient room, he caught a glimpse through an open door of another waiting room, one with sofas, plush carpet and toys — the one for white patients.
“I was 10 years old, and that was probably my first realization there was discrimination,” Henry recalled.
White pastors in the group share their experiences and perspectives, too, but the Rev. R. Dallas Greene, senior pastor at Grace Community Church in Frederick, emphasized his role as a white man as one of listening more than talking. He sees the group discussions as an opportunity to let the voices of his black comrades be heard.
It’s also a chance to apologize for the wrongdoings of his race, both historically and today. When the Rev. Richard Fredericks, senior pastor at Damascus Road, spoke to the predominantly black congregants at Hope Christian Fellowship, he apologized, he said.
Crossing the divide
Inviting one another to give guest sermons is one way the men have sought to spread their interracial interactions with their congregants. Henry and Gerald have delivered sermons at Damascus Road, Fredericks said.
The pair also spoke directly about race relations to Damascus Road’s congregation soon after the Baltimore riots that erupted after Freddie Gray’s death. Asked how his predominantly white, conservative congregation reacted to their messages, Fredericks said it was a “very positive” and “refreshing” experience.
They may have lost a few of the members from those guest appearances, those who were turned off by the Black Lives Matter type of message, Foss admitted. But he described the loss as inconsequential compared with the value of exposing his congregants to the black pastors’ perspectives.
“We can’t try to be everything to all people,” Foss said.
In that same vein, historically black church services also have to give up some of the cultural traditions that characterize their worship to attract a more diverse congregation, Henry said. When he founded Hope Christian in 2014, for example, he and other church leaders deliberately decided against adapting the “Sunday best” attire traditional to black churches.
“We knew that could be a barrier to making people come and worship,” he explained.
Henry wasn’t worried about diluting black culture, though. There’s still a contingent of worshippers who attend Sunday services clad in suit and tie, even if the rest of the congregation doesn’t, he said.
Hicks agreed. African-American history and culture can still be preserved, but that happens more in the home than in the church, he said. He has used his role as a parent, for example, to instill this culture in his children.
The Rev. Jim Eaton, pastor at Mosaic Church in Frederick, framed the meshing of cultures and races in its congregation not as giving up their individual identities but in forming a new identity greater than the sum of its parts.
The Mosaic congregation has experienced firsthand the benefits of collaboration from the traditions brought by its black, white, Asian and Hispanic members. A typical service at Mosaic includes songs sung in contemporary Christian style popular among white churches, as well as traditional black gospel-style songs, he said. Some churchgoers stay silent during his sermons, as is typical of the preaching time in most white churches, while the Hispanic and black members call out words of encouragement, he said.
“It’s a really rich experience,” Eaton said.
The pastors plan to continue sharing pulpits and choirs with one another as a way to promote interracial interaction. But they also looked to additional measures, such as community service projects and panel discussions specifically devoted to race and discrimination.
Greene emphasized their roles as men of faith as uniquely positioning them to lead the charge on race relations. “We have the holy spirit on our side,” he said.
Fredericks agreed. “I hope the church can lead the way in the browning of America,” he said, referring to the commingling of black and white cultures.