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Racial Unity: Southern Merged Congregation Leads by Example

KANNAPOLIS, NC (AP) — Troy Savage says Martin Luther King Jr.’s decades-old critique of the racial divide in the American church still rings true today.

“They say the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11 a.m….it’s true,” Savage said, adding that people of different races, ethnicities and cultures regularly work and socialize together. . “And then on Sunday morning we do this – we go our separate ways.”

But Savage doesn’t think it should stay that way. He and his family of four, who are African American, attend The Refuge Church just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. It is one of the churches trying to diversify Sunday mornings in America.

“When we think about racial reconciliation, our goals really should be to do what Jesus wanted us to do, which is to be one — to be united,” said April Savage, his wife. “That’s really what The Refuge is trying to do. They want to bring people together… where we not only exist in the same church, but where we are celebrated in the same church.

In November 2016, The Refuge Church, a predominantly white multi-site congregation, merged with a predominantly black church and hired its pastor, Reverend Derrick Hawkins, as part of its ministry staff. The Reverend Jay Stewart, the senior pastor of The Refuge Church, and Hawkins, who is now one of the executive pastors, detailed the merger in the book, “Welded: Forming Racial Bonds That Last.”

“Part of our goal is to be a show of unity, a show of racial reconciliation in a nation that has been so divided for too long. And we have the privilege of leaving that goal,” Stewart said.

Over the past two decades, the ethnic diversity of American congregations has increased, according to the 2021 National Congregation Study. Predominantly black congregations continue to represent about 20%, but the proportion of predominantly white congregations in America has decreased although the minority presence within them has increased, the study indicates.

About 15% to 20% of those who worship at The Refuge Church’s Kannapolis campus are African American, said Stewart, who considers the increase in congregational diversity a great success.

“It’s a challenge in the South to see what you saw today – it’s a huge challenge,” Stewart said on a recent Sunday. “Six years ago you wouldn’t have seen this here, but today you’ve seen diversity that’s going in the right direction.”

Decades have passed since civil rights activists desegregated lunch counters in southern Jim Crow and a landmark federal voting rights law took effect. Today, race relations in North Carolina continue to be affected by national political debates and state political fights, ranging from how police treat black people to what students learn about black history. to disputes over gerrymandering and voting rights.

On a recent Sunday at the Kannapolis campus of The Refuge Church, a band played contemporary Christian songs, and congregants — black and white — clasp their hands in prayer and a steady stream of congregants were called on stage for healings. spiritual.

Jonathan and Summer Daniel, who are white and joined the congregation before the merger, welcomed the change. “Psalm 133 says unity is where the Lord commands blessing,” said Jonathan, who has heard nothing but positive feedback from his friends about the merger.

This was not the case for April Savage. “Not everyone gets it,” she said.

“Some people might not say it out of their mouths, but they feel like, oh, like you’ve abandoned your people. Because you go into this predominantly white ministry, or whatever it is, however you want to classify it. But we choose not to see it that way. We choose to look at it because it is the kingdom of God, and it is the kingdom that brings us together. We all believe the same thing.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, among black adults who attend religious services in the United States, 25% say they attend places of worship with multiracial congregations and clergy. Many more — 60% — say they attend church services where most or all of the congregation and clergy are black.

The Reverend Abdue Knox, pastor of the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte, warned pastors of interracial congregations not to overlook the experiences of their black members.

“We really have to do what’s best for our family, and if it’s best for our family to pray in an interracial setting, that’s great. But as a pastor of another interracial pastor, don’t forget, and don’t leave out, and don’t neglect the struggle, the black struggle. We need to include this as part of our faith formation,” he said.

Compared to those who attend multiracial or white churches, or places of worship with other racial makeups, black adults who attend black Protestant churches are more likely to say they hear about issues such as race relations and criminal justice reform from the pulpit, the Pew report states.

Historically, black churches have long been a central part of the spiritual life of black Americans as well as a center of social and cultural support and the promotion of racial equality.

“Faith in the African American community has always been all we had. And so we lean on what I knew how to do…seek the Spirit of God for unity,” Stewart said. “We can’t do it on our own. There has never been a politics created, no discourse capable of uniting, it is only the power and the presence of God that unites us. ___

AP reporters Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed.

Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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