Racial unity: Merged Southern congregation sets an example

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) — Troy Savage says Martin Luther King Jr.’s decades-old criticism of the racial divide in the U.S. church still rings true today.

“It’s been said that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11 … it’s true,” said Savage, 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 does not think it has to stay that way. He and his family of four, who are African American, attend The Refuge Church just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. It is one of the churches trying to diversify Sunday mornings in America.

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

In November 2016, The Refuge Church, a mostly white multisite congregation, merged with a predominantly Black church and hired its pastor, the Rev. Derrick Hawkins, to its ministry staff. The Rev. Jay Stewart, the lead 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.”

“A part of our purpose is be a demonstration of unity, a demonstration of racial reconciliation in a nation that has been so divided for way too long. And we get the privilege of walking out this purpose,” Stewart said.

Over the last two decades, the ethnic diversity of U.S. congregations has grown, the 2021 National Congregations Study states. Predominantly Black congregations continue to account for about 20%, but the proportion of predominately white congregations in America has shrunk although the minority presence within those has grown, the study states.

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

“It’s a challenge in the South to see what you saw today — that’s a huge challenge,” Stewart said on a recent Sunday. “Six years ago, you would not have seen that here, but today you saw diversity that’s trending in the right direction.”

Decades have passed since civil rights activists desegregated lunch counters across the Jim Crow South and a landmark federal voting rights act went into law. Today, race relations in North Carolina continue to be impacted by national policy debates and state political fights ranging from how police treat Black people to what students are taught about Black history to disputes over gerrymandering and voting rights.

On a recent Sunday at The Refuge Church’s Kannapolis campus, a band played contemporary Christian songs, and worshippers — Black and white — grasped their hands in prayer and a steady stream of churchgoers were summoned to the stage for spiritual healings.

Jonathan and Summer Daniel, who are white and joined the congregation before the merger, welcomed the change. “Psalm 133 says that unity is where the Lord commands blessing,” said Jonathan, who only heard positive feedback from his friends about the merger.

That wasn’t the case for April Savage. “Not everybody understands it,” she said.

“Some people they may not say it out of their mouth, but they feel like, oh, like you abandoned your people. Because you’re going to this, predominantly white ministry, or whatever, however you want to classify it. But we choose to not look at it that way. We choose to look at it as this is the kingdom of God, and it’s the kingdom that brings us together. We all believe the same.”

Of Black adults who attend religious services in the U.S., 25% say they go to houses of worship with multiracial congregations and clergy, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. Far more – 60% — say they attend religious services where most or all of the congregation and clergy are Black.

The Rev. Abdue Knox, pastor of Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charlotte, cautioned pastors of interracial congregations not to disregard 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 worship in a interracial setup, that’s great. But as a pastor to another interracial pastor, don’t forget, and don’t leave out and don’t neglect the struggle, the Black struggle. We have to include that as a part of our faith formation,” he said.

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

Historically Black churches have long been a core part of the spiritual lives of Black Americans as well as a center of social and cultural support, and the push for racial equality.

“Faith in the African American community has always been all we had. And so we lean to what I knew to do … seeking the Spirit of God for unity,” Stewart said. “We can’t do it in our own ability. There’s never been a policy created, any speech that’s able to unite — it’s only the power and the presence of God that unites us.” ___

AP reporters Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tenn., contributed.


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