The most segregated hour

 

The Rev. Bonell Fields appears in front the historic St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Enid, Okla., where she has preached since 1963. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

 

ENID, Okla. — More than half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. called 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour in America, eighty percent of the nation’s congregations still are made up of predominantly one race.

That statistic is slowly shifting toward more diverse congregations — in 2012 all-white congregations made up 11 percent of all U.S. churches, compared to 20 percent in 1998, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

But, in Enid and across the country, a majority of the population still attend worship services divided along racial lines that date back to the days of segregation.

A split alliance

The Rev. Erik Granberg, pastor of North Garland Church of Christ, said when he moved to Enid several years he was surprised to find the community still has two ministerial alliances: Enid Ministerial Alliance, the larger of the two groups; and Southern Heights Ministerial Alliance, which represents historically black congregations, predominantly from the Southern Heights neighborhood.

In recent years the two ministerial alliances have begun having periodic joint meetings, and have shared ministers back and forth to guest preach. Granberg said participation on both sides of those ecumenical efforts “has been less than it could be,” and still needs work.

From his perspective as a pastor, Granberg said the makeup of congregations still is steeped in the historic demographics of the neighborhoods from which they draw congregants.

“Most people go to church within two miles of their home, so this is partly driven by location,” Granberg said. “If people live in a predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhood, you would expect that to be represented in their congregation.”

Granberg said elements of culture, tradition, and shared history also keep people going to church “where they’re used to going,” in churches that still represent the racial divides of the last century.

The institutional divide

In addition to the momentum of history, culture and tradition, some denominations still are separated by institutional divisions made over race in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Rev. Derwin Norwood, pastor of the West Side Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and COGIC superintendent for northwest Oklahoma, pastors in a historically black denomination that once was racially diverse.

“The Church of God in Christ is unique,” Norwood said, “because originally it was one of the most integrated churches in the United States.”

According to the COGIC website, the denomination was founded as an integrated church in 1907, until almost all white congregants split into the Assemblies of God (AG) over the “racial culture at that time in America, when culture shaped the church into racial division rather than the Bible.”

Norwood said the Ku Klux Klan took exception to white congregants attending what they saw as a black church, and “started burning the white members out of the church, starting in the early 1900s.”

The COGIC denomination subsequently became segregated, and today its membership still largely represents that history.

Norwood said the COGIC and AG churches opened ecumenical dialogue in the 1990s, and efforts have continued since to heal the racial rift torn between their churches more than a century ago.

“We’ve made great strides since then,” Norwood said. But, he added, anger and fear still persist on both sides of the racial divide from the days of segregation.

“The only way we’re every going to get past that is with the love of Jesus Christ,” Norwood said.

“We need to see Jesus,” he said. “Jesus came for us all. We need to get past everything else and just see Jesus.”

Diversity out of the ashes

The Rev. Alfred Baldwin Jr., former pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church, saw an immediate change he wanted to make when he arrived at his new church in 1978.

The church’s original name, First Baptist Church, Colored of Enid, left no doubt about its segregated status. Baldwin said he knew that had to change for the sake of the congregation’s future.

“I knew it would be difficult to keep our church going if we were segregated,” Baldwin said. “There were a few older members that wanted to keep the name, but I told them the only way we could grow was to show the community we did not believe in segregation whatsoever.”

Overcoming the inertia of decades of segregation in a congregation requires pastoral leadership, and a heart for unity, Baldwin said.

“It’s my opinion that integration has to start in the heart, and even though some churches claim to be integrated, in their hearts they are not,” Baldwin said. “The pastor has to demonstrate that he has a heart for integration, and that he wants to see change made. If the pastor doesn’t have a heart to lead the people to integration, it’s going to be difficult.”

Baldwin said the church had no diversity when he arrived, and some members were hesitant to pursue a more diverse future. They found their way forward in the wake of a tragedy.

On June 13, 1996 an arsonist burned the congregation’s original wood frame church, sparking fear and stirring memories of hate crimes suffered during the days of Jim Crow segregation.

Baldwin said it was the community response to the fire that allayed those fears, and paved a way forward for the congregation.

“Some individuals weren’t ready to change, but when our church was burned it brought us closer together in the community,” he said.

First Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church came to the aid of the congregation, the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church allowed them to use the former Trinity UMC location free of charge, and churches and ministries across the nation donated funds to help them rebuild.

“The fire turned out to be a blessing,” Baldwin said. “We had to learn to forgive, no matter who did it, or why. Our congregation really embraced that, and as a result we became more diverse.”

Today the congregation makeup still largely reflects its history as a black church, but over the years that has slowly begun to change, and about 25 percent of Sunday worshippers now are white or Hispanic.

Hope for the future

The Rev. Bonell Fields, former pastor at St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, has led congregants in worship since she was ordained in 1963, into a denomination founded in 1816 by black congregants who were forced from segregated churches.

Fields attended segregated schools in Texas, watched her late sister Maudell Graves lead marches and sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement in Enid, and in her early career was the only black nurse at then-named St. Mary’s Springs Hospital and the former Enid Memorial Hospital.

In the face of that history, Fields has hope for a day when race no longer plays a role in worship.

“I’m hopeful for that, and I’m praying for that,” Fields said. “We have to get past that. We have to be tolerant of other people, tolerant of their feelings, and we have to get to a point where color doesn’t matter — but we’re not there yet.”

The way forward, Fields said, lies in focusing on Christians’ common foundation in the Gospel.

“We all worship the same God, and we’re supposed to love each other,” she said. “It’s the power of God that brings us together, and the power of things God can do if we let him.”

Fields sees hope, and the power of what God can do, in the next generation of her own family.

Her daughter, The Rev. Pamela Fields, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is in the midst of planting a new church in Dallas, Texas.

Fields said her daughter’s new congregation reflects the diverse racial makeup of Dallas, with white, black, Native American, and Hispanic congregants.

Having a black woman found and lead a church of and for all races would have been unthinkable in Fields’s youth, she said, and in that development she sees hope for a future in which race no longer separates Christians.

“It’s unbelievable,” Fields said. “You have to say God is working this, and making this happen.”

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