Churches working to make segregated Sunday a thing of the past

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

The former movie theater building loomed large before Maxine Rounds seven years ago, when she crossed the parking lot at Tracetown Shopping Center and stopped to gaze at it. &uot;I’ll bet it’s a white church,&uot; the African-American Natchez woman said to herself. &uot;What would they think if I came in there?&uot;

The name of the church, Abundant Life, and its humble dwelling place appealed to Rounds, a long-time member of another Natchez church with an all-black congregation.

She did not have the courage to enter Abundant Life Church the first time she tried. The second time, buoyed by a friend’s description of a congregation that was on fire with love, Rounds did it.

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Now an active member of that congregation, which since then has built and settled into an attractive new facility on Liberty Road, Rounds is not the only black member of the church. Most important to her, however, is that race really does not matter.

&uot;I found freedom in worship, freedom in the people who were there and a pastor talking against racism,&uot; she said. &uot;Black church, white church &045; I don’t like those words. They all are God’s churches.&uot;

The most segregated hour?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago dubbed 11 a.m. on Sundays the most segregated hour of the week in America. He would be pleased that in 2003 that is changing, even in Mississippi, a state he described in his famous &uot;I Have a Dream Speech&uot; as &uot;a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression.&uot;

Not that all the barriers have fallen. Pastors whose congregations are growing interracially concede the minority numbers, whether white among black or black among white, do not yet reflect the makeup of the communities in the Natchez area.

Still, that the mix of worshipers has begun to grow is a good sign, pastors said. &uot;I’ve tried to keep it before the people that God loves people irrelevant of their color,&uot; said the Rev. John Collard, pastor of Abundant Life Church. &uot;We take on the nature of Jesus when we become Christians. That means loving all people. Our church should have a racial ratio the same as the community. We’re not there yet.&uot;

When the Rev. Douglas Logan and his congregation recently moved into their new Mount Olive Baptist Church building in Sibley, Logan was pleased to see the first white worshiper join them for a service.

Logan believes blacks and whites together in church can learn from one another and can set important examples in the community.

&uot;It’s time for us to come together and show unity, and the church is a great place to start,&uot; Logan said. &uot;I believe that if we work together spiritually, even our problems in the economy will get better.&uot;

His congregation hears simple but important messages from the pulpit at Mount Olive, Logan said. &uot;I came up in an era of a lot of strife, but I always thought we should be able to get along. It never made sense to me. We all have the same troubles, and we’ll all see the Maker together. If we are apart, it’s Satan’s work.&uot;

Is there a trend toward interracial congregations? Logan hopes so. His church sits amidst a mixed neighborhood, and he wants Mount Olive to be a church home for all who wish to come.

&uot;I’m a believer that the Gospel is for all mankind. I accept anyone willing to come in and be among us. The congregation welcomes and receives everyone, inviting them to get involved in our work,&uot; he said.

Separate worship a complex story

Separation of black and white congregations goes back to early American history, one noteworthy landmark being the 1787 ouster of activists and former slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones from the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia when they prayed in the whites-only section of the church.

As black evangelists established churches to spread Christianity among African Americans in cities such as Philadelphia and other large capitals, slaves in the South worshiped along with the families who held them in bondage.

&uot;But many slave owners wouldn’t let slaves learn to read because they knew the Bible promoted freedom for the slaves,&uot; said the Rev. Bill Hurt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Natchez.

First Baptist, predominantly white, in fact shares its history with the predominantly black congregation of Rose Hill Baptist Church. Both claim origins in the old Wall Street Baptist Church, no longer standing.

&uot;If you go back and look at your history, you’ll see blacks and whites did worship together,&uot; Hurt said. &uot;But blacks were either in the balcony or in the basement. Once there was a conclusion to the Civil War, the races went their separate ways.&uot;

Hurt learned early in life about bigotry and hatred among people who called themselves Christians. He was a teenager when the church where his father was pastor in the Mississippi Delta became the first to establish an open-door policy toward people of all races.

Tolerance grows in new


&uot;That was in 1959. We lost half the congregation over that,&uot; Hurt said. &uot;I remember very well the devastation of that experience and recognized the lack of Christian maturity in the people who left the church.&uot;

People are more tolerant now, Hurt said. First Baptist has the same open-door policy his father established, and black and Hispanic families do attend church there. &uot;If you’re growing in Christ and glorifying Christ, race doesn’t matter,&uot; he said.

Bigotry is not dead, Hurt said. But it certainly is dying. &uot;My daughter at age 12 does not see black and white,&uot; he said. &uot;She sees a friend or a classmate. Bigotry and racism are not something you’re born with but something you’re taught. Christians realize the cycle has to stop.&uot;

In addition to a couple of generations of black and white children having grown up more closely associated with each other at school and sports events, for instance, another factor in promoting interracial worship has been work accomplished by ministerial alliances and individual churches.

Different forces at work

&uot;Where there are community-wide worship services, people have the opportunity to see that we all are alike in many ways,&uot; Hurt said.

He recalled the community-wide Holy Week services hosted by First Baptist and the day the Rev. Mike O’Brien, a Catholic priest and pastor of Assumption Catholic Church of Natchez, preached in the Baptist church with the mostly African-American gospel choir from Alcorn State University singing behind him. &uot;That was a good thing,&uot; he said.

Some pastors have definite goals of increasing numbers of the opposite race in their congregations. Others promote the open door and a welcoming atmosphere but do not actively recruit.

Collard of Abundant Life and the Rev. Troy Thomas of Bethel Church in Vidalia, La., have set goals for their churches, both hoping their congregations one day will be the same 50-50 mix as the Natchez area represents.

The two pastors have become good friends and work together on their goals. &uot;Every other month, we swap churches unannounced,&uot; Collard said. &uot;I will go to his church to preach and he will come to mine.&uot;

Bethel, a predominantly black congregation, is attracting more white members in that way but also by having a white minister as one of the assistant pastors.

&uot;If God does work in the preacher and he stands up for right and truth, that’s the key thing,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;A leader who loves God and is on fire for him can make the difference.&uot;

Showing true love to all people will draw them to Christ, Thomas said. Then as God gets the church straight, the unity will filter into the community.

The Rev. Doug Wright, pastor of the predominantly white First Assembly of God, is another church leader who wants to see the racial percentages in his congregation more reflective of the community.

&uot;I’ve been here 11 years, and I came preaching and teaching that all colors are a part of the kingdom of God and of the church and that we’ll all be in Heaven together and should work together,&uot; Wright said.

The preaching and teaching have paid off in a group of worshipers he considers wonderful to view from the pulpit because of their diversity.

Before his move to Natchez, Wright served in a church where bigotry raised its head in an ugly manner. The youth pastor at that church in another state had been bringing black and white children to church events. Some church members objected, Wright said.

&uot;Things came to a head. Some of the opposition was on my board. It is a part of my heart to be open, and I resigned. Then the Lord opened this opportunity for me in Natchez,&uot; Wright said.

His strong feelings about racial injustice and healing the divisions began during his early years. &uot;I realized that prejudice and bigotry are wrong,&uot; he said. &uot;Most people are comfortable worshiping with people of similar cultures. That’s fine. But if someone wants to worship in any church, it shouldn’t matter what economic status, social status or color.&uot;

Saving souls, building


Wright said his passion is not just to zero in on black membership, although he hopes it will grow. &uot;Trying to prove a point can backfire. My real passion is more that everyone is called to salvation. That is open to all people.&uot;

In a new building with a growing congregation numbering more than 1,000, the Rev. Stanley Searcy of New Hope Baptist Church has ministered to white members in his predominantly black congregation for more than 10 years. However, those numbers are growing, now totaling as many as 40 who worship regularly at the Morgantown Road church.

&uot;I’m so thrilled that in my hometown the interaction and reaction of the races are changing, but the work is not done,&uot; he said. &uot;Moving outside our circles to make it happen, learning each other’s culture &045; that’s the way it will happen.&uot;

Searcy believes a movement is under way in the wider church world. &uot;In the church overall, the body of Christ has realized the world has changed,&uot; he said. &uot;If we’re divided, so will be the rest of the nation and the world. I really believe this is the season of God.&uot;

Another factor Searcy sees as important is helping people of many different denominations to be comfortable worshiping with one another. &uot;I’m a Baptist pastor, but I flow in the gift of the spirit. In this church, we have people of all denominations.&uot;

Echoing what other pastors said, Searcy pointed out that making a better community can begin in the churches. &uot;Once the end of the division between races begins in the church, which is the soul and heart of the community, it will spread over the rest of the community,&uot; he said. &uot;Just imagine working together without letting our differences and shortcomings get in the way. All our efforts to make this a better place will bloom.&uot;