Delaware pastors touch on modern-day segregation in church.
The Civil Rights Act abolished legal segregation in 1964. But its old fingerprints haven’t been completely wiped clean.
An observation from civil rights icon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would’ve turned 90 years old Tuesday, still rings true today about the Christian church in America.
“It is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 a.m. Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours,” King said.
A black pastor and a white pastor, both in Smyrna, embody King’s spirit, collaborating in an effort to better serve the community. Their last names are opposite of their respective skin colors.
The Rev. Rudolph White of Centennial United Methodist Church (predominately black) and pastor Dale Brown of Asbury United Methodist Church (predominately white) help run a Code Purple sanctuary for homeless men at Centennial.
A Code Purple sanctuary was established four years ago by Centennial. It accommodates 15 men who can find refuge at the church from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. during nights when the temperature is 32 degrees or below, White said.
Asbury and Centennial alternate weeks running the homeless sanctuary, along with Ewell’s St. Paul United Methodist Church and Kenton United Methodist Church, both majority white congregations.
White said it was important to partner with other churches for this initiative because he knew there’d be strength in numbers.
“We’re all very different, but we all come together to meet a specific need,” he said. “We’re not as effective individually as we are collectively.”
Members from Centennial and Asbury and surrounding churches join in worship at Centennial on Tuesdays at noon during the Hour of Power. It’s a brief service that allows the community to receive a spiritual boost in the middle of the week.
The two pastors have also partnered on pulpit exchanges.
“I’ve preached at Asbury and Dale has preached down here at Centennial. We’re looking to do more of that,” White said.
“It’s important to us so that we’re seen being collegial and we’re seen not only by the community of faith, but also by people in our community, working together and showing we’re not afraid of our differences, but we’re celebrating them,” he said.
Brown said White is a friend, and it’s nice to have him preach at Asbury because it’s good for his congregation to see diversity in the pulpit. He makes it a point to keep things interesting with guest speakers at his church.
“I’ve intentionally chosen guest speakers, both when I’m there and on vacation, who are either Hispanic, African American or female,” Brown said. “I’ve had African persons to be there and speak so that the people see that leaders and persons come in a variety of appearances, ages and gender.”
Introducing diversity, however, can sometimes bring about resistance.
“It’s never easy,” Brown said. “There are some times when things happen and people don’t understand. We have some who honestly are older and sometimes it’s a struggle.”
‘White privilege’ mentality
Asbury’s pastor said one of the reasons churches are still segregated today is due to inherent racism.
“Another part of [that] is a sense of white privilege, that person’s view themselves as better than someone else based on their race,” he said. “They look down on somebody, or they make themselves feel better based on the idea that they feel they’re better towards persons of color or lower economic status.”
The Rev. Rita Paige, of Star Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dover, said she believes elements of racism exist in churches today, reflected in how most of the integrated churches are led by white pastors, she said.
Having diversity at the pastoral position is key to embracing diversity.
“It starts from the pulpit, because I think the pastor sets the tone for the church,” Paige said.
The Star Hill church was founded of out racism. AME churches were established in the late 1700s after white officials from the Methodist Episcopal Church pulled blacks off their knees while they were praying.
Once blacks discovered how far Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against them, they started their own churches, according to AME-Church.com.
While her church is called African Methodist Episcopal, Paige said her doors are open to everyone.
She’s attempted to bring in more diverse membership by having white associate pastor David Hill, of Wyoming United Methodist Church, preach from her pulpit the last two years.
Paige and Hill also work on a MLK church service they’ve held the last few years at his Wyoming church, which has attracted a diverse audience, she said. This year’s service will be Monday, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. at Wyoming UMC.
She said it’s important for pastors to get out into the community to show themselves friendly to people outside of their congregation, because it could then spark different races to feel welcome in their churches.
Middletown, Milford ministers chime in
Bishop Jeffrey Broughton, of Living Grace Worship Cathedral in Middletown, said he has a predominately black congregation, but he’s making strides to diversify.
“I am the lead pastor of a predominately African American church that attends the Peach Festival, National Night Out and other community events, because I'm very community oriented and driven by doing a lot to break down barriers,” Broughton said.
Paul Bowman, who co-founded and pastors Anchor Church in Milford with his wife Rachel, agreed with Paige that there’s an issue with a lack of diversity at the pastoral position in many integrated churches.
Bowman said some churches are simply afraid to step outside of the comfort of tradition. His solution is churches must evaluate and question some of their longtime traditions to see if they are best for the community.
“If a church is 50 or 70 years old and has never had a white pastor, that’s going to be something where they’re going to have to ask the question ‘why is that the case?’” he said. “You’re not just talking about race, but we’re also talking about gender. If you never had a woman serve in a pastoral role, you have to ask ‘why?’”
On both sides
The musical styling of a church’s choir plays an important role for some when deciding which church to choose, Bowman said.
The 38-year-old pastor, who plays guitar, said white churches usually offer a musical style of praise and worship that’s more pop-rock driven, while black churches feature a gospel style more influenced by jazz and R&B.
The Rev. Dr. Vernon Bryant certainly understands the difference between black and white churches, because he’s pastored both through cross-racial appointments, a process where a person of faith preaches to a church that’s mainly of a different ethnic background than their own.
Bryant, a black man, has been assigned by the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church to St. George United Methodist Church and now Hockessin United Methodist Church, both mostly white.
Prior to Hockessin UMC, he preached at the mostly black Ezion-Mount Carmel United Methodist Church in Wilmington for seven years.
“One of the biggest differences is that in the black church, worship is focused a lot around the music,” he said.
As a black leader in white churches, Bryant said he has not experienced any racism directed toward him.
“With both black and white churches, I discovered that people are people,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t take the time to know [other] people or their cultural differences. So it links to that separation.”
Bryant said some congregations are predominately one race not because they’re racist, but to a large extent congregations reflect the demographic in their community.
Sussex County evolves
Recognizing lower Delaware has a large Hispanic population, Milford pastor Bowman said his church, which is less than two years old, recently held their Christmas service in Spanish to attract a more diverse membership.
Pastor Rick Betts of Crossroad Community Church in Georgetown said his church has four Sunday services, with the 11 a.m. service dedicated to Hispanic members.
Betts said when his church first opened, it was important to him that the congregation reflected a rainbow. Though the membership is mostly white, Betts said his church is much more diverse now than was typical when he was growing up in Milton.
“In Sussex County, I’d say it hasn’t been an easy road to get to this place,” said the 60-year-old Betts.
“When I grew up, I was in a totally white church and a lot of people I talked to here were in totally black churches or totally Hispanic churches,” he said. “It’s not something we grew up with that was here 40 years ago.”
Growing up in Milton, the pastor said, black and white churches would usually integrate services only on Easter and Thanksgiving. He thought it was odd that it didn’t happen more often.
“It always felt wonderful to me. Then after that was over, everyone went back to black and white churches. I always thought that was strange. Why couldn’t they work together?” Betts said.
“I love the fact with Crossroad we were able to start in 2003 and our foundation was new,” he said. “My desire is we would include all races. Of course to God we’re one race, we’re the human race. If you can think that way then you begin to break down walls.”