Two Florida Churches – One Black, One White – Merge In Racial Reconciliation Effort

Members of the children's choir at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church perform on stage during the morning service January 22. 2017. (Bob Self/For The Washington Post)
Members of the children’s choir at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church perform on stage during the morning service January 22. 2017. (Bob Self/For The Washington Post)

The topic of the public lecture at the seminary was “The Bible and Race,” and the discussion had turned to “racial reconciliation,” buzzwords used for new efforts to heal old rifts.

What would it look like, one pastor wanted to know, for a church to actually become “racially reconciled”? Was it even possible?

Cynthia Latham had been sitting silently in the back. Now she stood up.

“I am a member of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church,” she said slowly and proudly. “And we are a reconciled congregation.”

In 2015, the church that Latham boasted of was two congregations, not one. There was the booming black church in the heart of the inner city, led by a charismatic preacher in the staunch tradition of black Baptists. And there was the quiet white church, nestled in the suburbs half an hour to the south, holding onto a tightknit community of Southern Baptist believers.

And then the black church and the white church merged. The resulting congregation at Shiloh — black and white, urban and suburban — appears to be the only intentional joint church of its kind in the United States.

Fifty-four years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously pronounced that Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation,” Shiloh Baptist embarked on a journey to address whether that centuries-old divide can be changed.

Now, two years later, even after some congregants left rather than change their traditions and the election of Donald Trump as president ratcheted up some tensions, many members at Shiloh say their ambitious effort at racial reconciliation is working.

“I have never felt so much love in a church in my life. . . . This church made me realize there is no color, none,” said Sue Rogers, 67, who is white. “I would do anything for anyone in this church, and they would do anything for me.”

Latham, who is black, said: “You get in there, you get fed. I don’t care how you walk in there, you don’t walk out the same.”

An ideal born of practicality

The merger, at first, was rooted in practical goals. Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist, the black church downtown, had survived a horrible chapter in its 142-year history. In 2008, its then-pastor was charged with sex crimes against a teenage girl and then sued by a woman who said he had sexually assaulted and impregnated her.

That year, the church hired Pastor H.B. Charles, 43. He came from a Los Angeles congregation that he had led since he was 17, when his father died, leaving Charles to take over his pulpit.

Six years later, Charles had righted the ship at Shiloh. The church was booming with more than 7,000 members, and leaders began to mull planting a second church, preferably in the suburb of Orange Park. They would get the new church on its feet, then spin it off as an entirely separate congregation.

They took their proposal to the Jacksonville Baptist Association. But Rick Wheeler, who leads the association, had another idea.

Wheeler knew about another church, very different from Shiloh. Ridgewood Baptist Church was suburban and white. And while Shiloh was thriving, Ridgewood was losing members and in debt since the senior pastor’s death from cancer.

Instead of starting a new church, Wheeler asked, would Shiloh like to merge with Ridgewood?

Gradually, over months of meetings and prayer in both churches, the idea of a merger went from laughably unlikely, to a sound business decision, to a higher calling.

Charles considered the thrust of King’s observation, which was about as true in 2014 as it was in 1963. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest report on the subject, 80 percent of U.S. churchgoers still attend a church where at least 80 percent of the people in the pews are of only one race or ethnicity.

The pastor decided that was not what Jesus intended.

“The Bible says that from the church, God is making a tribe of every nation, people and tongue. I feel like the church should look like that,” he said.

And the only way to make a tribe of all peoples, Charles said, was to actually join existing churches.

After the two churches merged into one church with two campuses, Shiloh agreed to be a dues-paying member of the Southern Baptist Convention — the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, which has sometimes struggled in moving past its racist history — and the National Baptist Convention, the largest traditionally black denomination.

When the first joint service convened in January 2015, the media crowed about a “new hope” and a “powerful statement” in Jacksonville.

And Peggy Kovacic, who candidly admitted that she had never had a black friend in her 72 years, showed up at Shiloh.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Julie Zauzmer

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