Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two of everything, even on Sundays

Times Picayune article from Friday, January 21, 2011
James Perry

In most American communities there are two of everything: two movie theaters, two malls, two of each type of school and two of most types of church. This is not a modern day Noahian tale; rather it is the lingering effect of de jure segregation.

In most cities, the segregative trend not only exists in places of worship, it is in America's churches, synagogues and mosques that the trend is most apparent. Dr. Martin Luther King famously lamented, "At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this."

Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches, however, in their destruction caused two churches to confront their roles in American segregation in a very real way. Grace Methodist, a 155-year-old African-American congregation, was rendered homeless when Katrina ravished its historic church located at Iberville and North Prieur. Mostly white First Methodist church, walking distance from Grace, got five feet of floodwaters. Further, its membership had waned from 1,200 to 700 pre-storm. In fact, in the days immediately after Katrina, as few as 30 people attended weekly Sunday service.

Neither church exists today. Instead, there is only First Grace United Methodist Church.
The two congregations overcame America's most persistent divider: race. They took the courageous step of forgoing their separate racial identities in favor of an integrated oneness. It was no easy task. First Methodist had a storied near-two-century history. And Grace Methodist, like so many black churches, had a key role in New Orleans' black political and civil rights communities. Merging the churches meant a perceived end to each of these valiant legacies in favor a new joint identity.

It also meant members had to address more corporeal matters, like whether the choir would continue with the more traditional and classical sound that First was accustomed to or the rhythmic soulful syncopation more common at Grace. Or what cooking style the new congregation would adopt at church dinners: Grace soul food or First's Italian and Irish comfort food. The questions and concerns were plentiful. But the congregation and its leaders stayed focused on unifying the churches, for before them lay a historic opportunity to recommit themselves to the tenets of their faith through racial integration. The final decision to unify was made in 2008.

I visited First Grace United Methodist for the first time in fall 2009. I've been a dozen or so times since then for community events and to Sunday service as a guest of friends who are members. I've never seen a church more reflective of New Orleans' diversity. Each time I have visited, the aisles overflowed with people of all races and ethnicities who had forged true bonds of friendship that easily shone through in both their actions and words.

This week, as we consider Dr. King's legacy, I invite you to consider whether integration is a component in your own life, at your place of worship, work, school and peer circles. I invite you to honor King's legacy by stepping out of your comfort zone. Spend some time making friends in a social environment where people who look like you are not the majority.

In fact, if you are free this Sunday, I know a church that would love to have you as a guest, in the spirit of commitment to faith and in the spirit of commitment to Dr. King's quest for racial integration in America.