Sundays not segregated at Florissant
PHOTO BY TAMIE ROSS
Sharing the supper - Kayla Payne, left, and Aquirra Foster take the Lord's Supper together at the Florissant, Mo., church on a recent Sunday. The teens, part of the Florissant youth group, enjoy a church community that is racially integrated.
FLORISSANT, MO. - A few years ago, Danny Younger overheard a visitor talking on the phone with a friend about the Florissant Church of Christ.
“Everyone just hugged one another no matter what color they were,” Younger recalled the person saying.
“Isn’t that the way it should be?” the church elder said he thought to himself.
In a recent special report headlined “Why many Americans prefer their Sundays segregated,” CNN.com quoted religious scholars who estimate that only about 5 percent of the nation’s churches are racially integrated.
Religious scholar Curtiss Paul De Young defined an interracial church as one in which at least 20 percent of its membership belongs to a racial group other than that church’s largest group.
The Florissant church, a 500-member congregation north of St. Louis, is among the tiny minority of congregations where Sunday morning is not segregated.
It’s 60 percent white and 40 percent black.
“My information is that Florissant has always been a racially diverse congregation,” said Mike Root, the minister for four years.
“It has been intentional, but it is also the result of the demographic of our community,” said Root, who is white. “I have never been with a church that so closely matches the true makeup of its community as Florissant does.”
Echoing many members interviewed, Renita Lewis, who is black, said race is not an issue at the Florissant church, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in October.
“Me personally, I feel like I’m treated as an individual,” Lewis said. “I think everybody kind of pitches in.
“Like, if somebody moves away, we always do a money tree. And if somebody dies, everybody pitches in — and it doesn’t matter what race. Everybody is treated equally.”
Even in such an integrated congregation, however, Root acknowledged challenges.
“It’s easy for a small group to become all one race. … Almost everyone is very sensitive to try not to let that happen, but you can’t always stop it,” he said. “And that’s OK, too, as long as it’s not based on some ungodly attitude — which I’ve never seen here.”
A bigger challenge is that the Sunday assembly “can’t be everything to everyone,” he said. That means the congregation must focus on worship as a giving experience, he said.
At Florissant, the assembly is a chance to glorify God and show love to one another, not an opportunity to fulfill a personal checklist of what one prefers in worship, he said.
“The point is that you can’t pick songs or have a particular style that will meet everyone’s expectations, and that is especially true when it involves the merging of two racial cultures,” Root said.
OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE?
Indeed, a desire for personal comfort may be the No. 1 reason for segregated Sundays at most congregations, said B.D. Holt Sr., minister of the Corona, Calif., church.
That Southern California church, which has undergone major demographic shifts as a result of its changing community, had a 90 percent white membership just four years ago.
Today, it’s 65 percent black, 28 percent white and 7 percent Hispanic and Asian.
Sunday morning attendance averages between 230 and 240.
“We could talk about the differences of blacks and whites in worship services, but those differences are all too evident,” said Holt, the interracial son of a black father and a white mother.
“What needs to happen is to have dialogue that talks about these differences without our white brothers feeling that if they don’t understand, then they will be seen as racist,” he said, “or the black brother being made to feel as if he is ignorant because he feels a need to worship in an entirely different manner.”
Holt pointed to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 25 that “if you do it unto the least of these, then you do it unto me.”
“When we deliberately segregate ourselves, we have not only done it to one of God’s children, we have actually done it unto Jesus himself,” Holt said. “Do we really want that legacy written by our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life? I certainly wouldn’t.”
Distrust and fear of a loss of power contribute to segregation, said David Franklin, a member and former elder at the Ross Road church in Memphis, Tenn.
That congregation, which is 75 percent black and 25 percent white, hired Gerald Jackson, who is black, as its new pulpit minister earlier this year.
One paragraph in Jackson’s application captured the elders’ attention:
“I have spent 17 years working in diverse congregations. I prefer this kind of a ministry for three reasons. Firstly, I believe it is a reflection of how heaven is going to be. Secondly, the potential to reach a broader spectrum of people is greater than a congregation that is culturally limited. Thirdly, the ability to share our different cultures while remaining united under the banner of Christ is a tremendous statement to the world.”
Franklin touted the blessings of an integrated congregation, including the opportunity to show a skeptical world that “two races normally pitted against each other can overcome their prejudices and fears.”
“If the races are to heal, that healing will be at the cross of Jesus,” said Franklin, who is white.
In Woodbridge, Va., the 200-member Dale City church is 30 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, including many African immigrants.
Rather than avoid cultural differences, Dale City members embrace them, said minister Dessain Terry, who is white.
“We enjoy diverse foods at our potlucks, various expressions such as the lifting of hands in prayer and different forms of Sunday morning dress,” Terry said. “We are very comfortable learning the differences.”
A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN
Back at the Florissant church on a Sunday morning, Christian brothers and sisters — black and white — blend together easily as they catch up in the foyer and in the teen classroom upstairs.
In a special adult Bible class on spiritual maturity, elder Charles Wieduwilt, who is white, and elder Austin Hollins, who is black, lead the discussion.
Yvonne Washington, her Bible open on the conference room table before class, said she came to the Florissant church from an all-black Nazarene church about three years ago.
“When I first came here on the first Sunday, everyone embraced me,” Washington said. “It was just like you would imagine heaven would be when you got there and all your brothers and sisters are there and everyone’s greeting you.”
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