SHREVEPORT, LA. — They sang hymns and waited for their now-famous bishop to make his entrance with all the hype of a rock band's star singer.
About a dozen white folks came, most of them forgoing the controversial $5 that Bishop Fred Caldwell offers - from his own pocket - just for coming to Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church.
When he strode through a side door of the wood-paneled sanctuary - once part of Shreveport's first black bank - the crowd rose, straining for a look at the bishop in his black-and-white designer suit and signature alligator shoes.
"Does God see color?" Bishop Caldwell asked. Many in the mostly black crowd of nearly 500 fell into his trap and shouted, "No."
They should have known better, after years of Sundays with this man who loves trick questions. His answer? Yes, God sees color. But He celebrates diversity, too, while people sometimes use color to divide. Mr. Caldwell proclaims segregation "a sin," and a problem in Shreveport.
Of course, it's a problem for much of this region, and for the nation. Caldwell is launching an assault on a stubborn fact that sociologists have written about for years: that the church, as a cultural conservator, is the most segregated institution in society. And the $5 blitz - offering whites $5 for Sunday services and $10 for Thursday evenings - comes in a city that, many suggest, never confronted the Civil Rights movement in the same way as, say, Jackson, Miss., or Selma, Ala.
"The most segregated hour of the week is 11 on Sunday morning," Caldwell says. "This is not about $5. It is a way to force people in this community to take a good look at ourselves and begin to change." Caldwell is now a celebrity in this city of 200,000 long split between whites and blacks. By road or rail it is the halfway point between Jackson and Dallas, built along the Red River where plantation houses still rise from sugar cane fields now dominated by chemical plants and casinos.
The $5 offer - which has landed the town in newspapers from Los Angeles to London, and on TV shows around the world - is more than a novel way to fill pews, integrate congregations, and save souls. It's also the battle cry of a man who admits he grew up hating "white folks" in a place where racism lingers from a slavery-tainted past.
In Caldwell's eyes, this is one of those Southern cities where the 1960s Civil Rights movement never quite took hold and the power structure was never forced to change.
"Shreveport is one of the last strongholds of the Confederacy," Caldwell says before Sunday services in his spare office, all dark wood and green carpet. "Racial prejudice here runs deep." He's not just talking about pickups with Confederate battle flags, he says, but the flags that still wave on lawns of official buildings downtown - and the "attitudes" of those driving the trucks and working here.
Loretha Bradley, a Full Gospel churchgoer, calls Shreveport "a masked society," where people "give lip service" to not being racist - then live segregated lives.
The bishop's Bible-bucks idea has been simmering for years. He's been thinking about it for a decade now, though the $5-an-hour offer came to him as if from the voice of God during a sermon two Sundays back. "There are five and a half billion people on the planet, and God gave this idea to me," he tells his congregation.
Most whites who come to Caldwell's 4,000-member church have refused the money: Ms. Bradley, selling books and T-shirts in the lobby and standing by to help people fill out payment cards, says they usually donate instead. But the very idea of payment-for-pews has drawn critics. In a letter and press release, the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship board - an organization Caldwell helped found - has worried that money might draw some to the pews "for wrong motives" or introduce the "root of all evil" into the church.
Caldwell addressed those fears last Sunday - and drew a round of "amens" when he raised his voice: "Money is not the root of all evil; the love of money is," he roared. Having paused for effect, he tried a James Brown impression, and drew laughs: Caldwell, a born orator, is not the best singer in the choir.
Shreveport's "race problem" came to a head most recently in 1998, when several hundred people organized a forum called "A Conversation About Race" - with what Caldwell describes as meager results. His frustration has resurfaced now, in part, because of the recent police shooting of an unarmed black man - and the subsequent police claim of mistaking the man's shiny metallic cellphone for a gun.
In the wake of protests by black leaders, which resulted in the police chief's resignation, a group of white citizens formed a group called "Back the Badge" to support police. Mayor Keith Hightower took criticism for attending a meeting of that group - and for not showing up to an opposition "march for justice."
Not everyone in town has heard the news about Caldwell. Some don't care to talk about it. But Ryan Krasik, a white Shreveport native with a career in the Army, came to see Caldwell for himself. He didn't do it for money, he insists, but he left impressed enough to come again. "It's a wonderful thing, just that he's willing to pay money out of his own pocket and to address this issue," Mr. Krasik says.
Caldwell has faith that even in the richest, whitest churches in town, there are plenty in Shreveport who yearn for racial change. But those preachers can't speak out, he says, "because they would be out of a job."
To force such a change in the face of church attendance - let alone in the larger power structure - would be monumental, says Rodney Grunes, head of the history and political science department at Louisiana's Centenary College. Just to integrate a Shreveport church, he says, is job enough. "It's certainly more than a gimmick, and clearly has possibilities," he says. "But the history of the community makes it a major challenge."