A whole new kind of church community is being created as black and white Integrated worship congregations merge.
CYPRESS, CALIF. — Martin Luther King, Jr., once called it the most segregated hour of the week - 11 a.m. on Sunday.
But the Church of Christ in Cypress, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, is doing its best to prove him wrong on that point. Formed by the merger of two separate Church of Christ congregations - one predominantly black, the other predominantly white - the church last month celebrated its one-year anniversary as a deliberately integrated congregation.
"We're trying to bring true unity to what we say we believe, to what we understand the Bible to be teaching us," says Graylon Freeman, minister of the church. "The Scriptures teach us ... that we're all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."
Although worship in America remains a largely segregated activity, Mr. Freeman and his congregation are part of a small but enthusiastic number of American churches that might well give hope to Mr. King if he were here today to assess the nation's religious landscape. These churches are making integrated worship a strategic part of their mission. And in the process, say observers, a whole new kind of church community is emerging - one with relevance for a nation in the midst of dramatic racial change.
"People [who are part of these churches] say you learn more about God because you see things from different cultural perspectives, ways you never thought of in the past," says Michael Emerson, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, who is co-authoring a three-year study of integrated congregations across the country. "It's still a fairly rare occurrence.... [but] I think it's a harbinger of things to come.
"There have been some amazing effects on people who've been part of mixed churches," he says. "We asked them about the racial makeup of their friends, etc., and found that people in mixed churches are incredibly more likely to live diverse lives in terms of who they know, where they live, even who they date."
According to Mr. Emerson, whose book, "United by Faith," will be published next year, only about 7 percent of American congregations are integrated, which means no one racial group makes up more than 80 percent of the church's population.
Of that 7 percent, says Emerson, about half are simply churches in transition from one racial group to another because of neighborhood demographic changes, while the other half are churches whose members have chosen to intentionally integrate.
Mainline Protestant denominations are the least likely to be integrated, while Pentecostal churches are the most likely. (Catholic churches have an even higher degree of integration, he says, but that is because of their parish model, which expects any Catholic living in a neighborhood to go to the local church).
Integration, say those who've done it, can be extremely difficult to achieve. It requires bridging not only racial lines, but also cultural differences and even differences in worship, including how a preacher preaches and what hymns the congregation sings.
In fact, some churches that have attempted to integrate have failed because cultural disagreements could not be overcome.
"It's very hard work," says Nancy Tatom Ammerman, author of the book "Congregation and Community."
"When people come together, they have to be very intentional and very careful about honoring each other's histories, and about creating a new history together. It's extremely easy for people to stub their toes in the process."
At the Church of Christ of Cypress, the merger of congregations was driven at first by simple needs.
The black congregation - which had its own church, Westside Church of Christ, several miles away in Santa Ana - was growing rapidly and needed more space for services and programs.
The white congregation, which met in Cypress, was struggling with an aging membership that was declining or moving away. They welcomed black elders from the Santa Ana church when they came to ask permission to use their church building for overflow meetings. Ultimately, they reached out to the Santa Ana church and suggested a merger.
"I thought it was a really good idea from the very beginning," says Linda Hays, who had been attending the Cypress church with her husband for about eight years, and had watched the membership dwindle to the point where "it was the same ones doing everything all the time."
But the transition required work - for members of both congregations. The two groups met several times, together and separately, over several months, to determine such specifics as whether children would sit in church with adults (they do), and to address concerns that one group did not assert more control than the other.
Although some of her fellow church members left for other places to worship, Mrs. Hays welcomed the Santa Ana church's active leadership, including elders and song leaders, both of which were lacking in her own congregation.
She admits, however, to having a hard time with the other church's style of worship, which she found to be much louder and more vocal than she was used to.
"I've adjusted to it," she says. "Because this is the way they are. And you learn to accept people for the way they are.... I think that's what God wants. We're not to judge people.
"I've grown, I can honestly say that," says Hays, who expresses admiration for the deeper relationship with God she sees in her new church fellows, many of whom have also become her friends. "I've learned a lot. It's been uplifting, and it's been encouraging."
Although members of the Santa Ana congregation came to the merger in greater numbers, bringing their minister and church leadership, they, too, had challenges.
Vickie Jackson considered not making the transition to a new church home because she didn't want to be judged by white congregants for her style of worship. She also didn't like the fact that the minister toned down his preaching. Although she understands and accepts his desire to make their new church brethren feel comfortable, she says she still wouldn't mind if he upped his delivery "one decibel more."
Mrs. Jackson also still puzzles over the socializing habits of some of her new church-family members. She's used to fellowship gatherings outside of church services, where food is shared and enjoyed by everyone, and couldn't help noticing that white congregants just didn't seem to join in the eating. (Hays, on the other hand, laughingly says her new friends are "the eatingest group of people I ever met.").
But the "kinks," as Jackson calls them, are being worked out. The merger, she says, has been a good thing.
"It lets you see that people of different colors can come together and worship the Lord," she says. "That's what we're there for, worship. And we've learned about each other's cultures, and seeing through different cultures.
"We have respect for one another in God's house," she says. "And that filters out. It has filtered out for myself. I've learned to be more patient with other racial groups, and to understand the diversity in our culture."
No one expects a huge surge in integrated congregations anytime soon.
"It's still a tough row to hoe," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University in New York. Unlike schools and the workplace, he says, where Americans must confront other races, religion is still a "discretionary" activity.
"People want to feel comfortable in their religious observance," he says. "And the fact is, most Americans still feel most comfortable with their own people."
In addition, says David Anderson, who began a multicultural, nondenominational church in Columbia, Md., nine years ago, Americans still have a hard time coping with issues of diversity and multiculturalism.
Mr. Anderson says he got so many questions about how his church operates that he began a nonprofit consulting group, Bridge Leader Network, to help churches and businesses achieve goals of what he calls "multicultural effectiveness."
"There's some real emotional baggage that comes with doing the whole multicultural thing," he says. "Black folk want to talk about it all the time. White folk want to act like it's not there. And for Asians and Hispanics, it's a matter of: 'Can you please realize that I'm in the room, and it's not just a black-white issue?'
"It is hard for people to cast a multicultural vision in a way that is practical, so that they really feel they can do it," he says.
Despite the difficulty, Anderson says he expects increasing interest in creating multicultural institutions. Like other observers, he also expects that younger people, who've shown less interest in identifying themselves as members of one race only, will play a huge role in changing the face of religious culture.
Rodney Woo, a Southern Baptist minister in Houston who helped guide an all-white, declining congregation into becoming a racially diverse church, says that many people - including members of racially mixed marriages - seek out his Wilcrest Baptist Church, because of its ethnic blend.
Mr. Woo, who is one-fourth Chinese and three-fourths Anglo, grew up in an all-black neighborhood and is married to a Mexican woman. Today, he says, worshippers from some 30 countries come to his church, with an average congregation of 400 to 450 people each week.
To him, integrated congregations are a natural part of Christian faith.
"It's the theology that God created us all in His image," he says. "And all of us are different. So there must be something we don't know about God that can only be found in different cultures. The more we engage with other Christians in other cultures, the more we can learn about God.
"We're probably a generation away, until we see dramatic [racial] changes in churches," he says. "We're kind of a prototype. If we can work out some kinks right now, then whenever a movement for more cultural diversity in the mainline denominations comes along, then there will be someone who has already forged a path that will save heartache and trouble for those who come behind us."