Pastor Bernie Miller Looks Back on the Long, Hard Road to Building a Multiracial Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Bernie Miller has spent his adult life as a black man being a bridge to people who are white. His professional career as a radio personality and executive caused him to interact with black musicians and white corporate owners.

When the pastor of New Covenant Fellowship Church on North Moore Road made a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, he was a vice president of artists and repertoire for Epic/CBS Records in New York. Miller’s position and ear for music made him a regular contributor to Billboard. He was on the path to success he charted in a Baltimore high school.

Miller has often told the story over his 29 years in Chattanooga of how he was led to turn on his television one morning in 1988 in search of a televangelist. The night before, he had been watching pornography on the television, but now there was Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

“It wasn’t on the X channel anymore,” says Miller. “The man said, “There’s somebody out there in the music industry and you are not fulfilled.’ I was on my knees in a matter of minutes.”

His life altered, Miller started attending Times Square Church in New York. His first “church” experience was multiracial, and that is what he expected when he moved to Chattanooga in 1990.

“The first church I walked into was all white,” Miller says. “It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life.”

As a popular radio host on J103-FM and the highly regarded WMBW, Miller found himself introducing black Christian music like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir to a predominantly white audience. Some whites rebelled against the station’s owners, but the station’s numbers grew as blacks joined his listening audience.

It was during his time at WMBW that Miller felt led to establish the first multiracial church in Chattanooga. With the support of prominent white Chattanooga pastors like Dr. Ron Phillips of what was is now Abba’s House in Hixson and the late Dr. Wayne Barber of Woodland Park Baptist Church, Miller opened New Covenant Fellowship on July 7, 1996. The church in Brainerd was in a 57 percent white and 43 percent black neighborhood, Miller’s research showed.

It was here, Miller believed, that Chattanooga would see what a multiracial church looked like. It was his hope that it would be the catalyst for a more desegregated 11 a.m. hour on Sunday mornings in the decades to come.

Now, 23 years later, 67-year-old Miller’s view is seasoned with experience and Southern reality — yet still plenty hopeful — even as he considers what churches across Hamilton County will look like this morning at 11 a.m. The change he envisioned hasn’t come, but might it come to pass before his time comes to an end?

“No, it will not,” he says.

Reporting on faith issues has a long legacy in Hamilton County’s newspaper industry. The Chattanooga Times, owned by the Jewish family of Adolph Ochs, began publishing a “Registry” tabloid on Sept. 9, 1978; the News-Free Press, owned by the conservative Protestant family of Roy McDonald, followed with a bannered “Church News” section on April 28, 1979.

Both papers contained faith-based content for decades before dedicating a section to news about all things church related and the sections grew for the next two decades. The news decisions are consistent with a 2018 Gallup study that showed the Southwest and Southeast contain nine of the nation’s most religious states, a list that contains Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

Miller’s background in marketing and research as part of the radio and record industry led him to place a half-page ad in both the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press on Saturday, July 6, 1996. He remembers the ad cost “somewhere between $250 and $500.” By mistake or divine intervention, the newspapers ran the ad on Saturday, June 29. The immediate “make good” by the paper doubled Miller’s promotion of his first Sunday.

The Times’ Registry front featured a story about “Christians, black and white,” planning a unity walk to bring attention to a series of church burnings across the south. A large headline announced, “Temple renovations complete” in reference to the completion of a new Hindu Temple at the headquarters of the Gujarati Samaj of East Tennessee at its headquarters in the Bonny Oaks area. The Temple remains today. The bottom of the page featured a children’s message, complete with a cartoon, by Gordon Bietz, a highly respected president of Southern College in Collegedale.

The News-Free Press’ Church News front page featured a story headlined “The Gospel According to Science,” a report about a four-day seminar given by Dr. Dean Ortner on “Sermons from Science.” Ortner’s dramatic science presentations were biblically based and he was affiliated with WBMW, where Miller worked. Ortner, today known as the “Million Volt Man,” had presented his demonstrations for Congress, at the Pentagon, at the Olympics and military bases throughout the country.

The News-Free Press religion front also contained a story about a Russian security chief apologizing for calling foreign religions “filth and scum,” and he said, “he was sorry for offending Mormons and Jews.” There was a brief headlined, “Methodists Oppose Homosexuality.” The Times Free Press carried an account on Feb. 22, 2019, that said the “United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly is meeting Saturday through Tuesday to determine where and how homosexuality fits into the church.”

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Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press