Segregation separates neighboring churches Methodists follow traditional paths of worship in Shady Side

September 07, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

United by theology, divided by race, the little brick churches sit side by side, a million miles apart.

The chapel on the left is for blacks, the one to the right for whites.

Ask the churches' oldest members about the century-old segregation, and they will matter-of-factly tell you that tradition isn't always politically correct.

Ask the new pastors of these Methodist sanctuaries -- good friends who worry their houses of God reflect a world not godly -- and they will tell you this:

"Racism is alive and well, and it's rearing its ugly head in the churches here in little old Shady Side," said the Rev. Roberta Matthews of the all-black St. Matthew's Methodist Church.

"Maybe the problems here aren't so different from what you see in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in the country," said the Rev. Stephanie Vader of the all-white Centenary Methodist Church, "but in a town this small, the lines of separation are so much more stark, so much more visible."

Almost hesitantly, the two ministers have begun to broach the subjects of godliness, racism, segregation and complacency in this south Anne Arundel County bay-side community of about 3,500.

Together, but from historically separate pulpits, they have preached. Counseled. Challenged.

The clergywomen -- one black and one white -- raise a mighty question, the kind of moral inquiry that makes people squirm in their pews, ready for the sermon to end:

Could it be that the absolute segregation of these two churches, which sit geographically and emotionally in the heart of the community, is symbolic of a bigger problem in this placid community?

Look closely:

Notice the majority of black Shady Side residents live in a gated community in one compact corner of the peninsula town, on streets named for black notables such as Haile Selassie and Jackie Robinson.

Read the history of this place, about the generations of blacks who have always made their living as maids and oyster shuckers, gardeners and crab pickers for white employers.

And see what happens every Sunday morning in front of St. Matthew's Methodist Church and Centenary Methodist Church, what has happened without fail since 1867, when blacks and whites go separate directions to pray to the same God.

"When I first came here, I thought the two churches were very indicative of Shady Side as a whole," said Vader, a bespectacled 30-year-old minister in her first clergy position. "You had your blacks over here, your whites over here. And never between the two shall meet."

Part of black culture

Long before the Civil War, before waterfront property was a hot commodity, black men brought their families to Shady Side, to live near the Chesapeake Bay while they worked as watermen. Since then, St. Matthew's and Sunday worship have been integral parts of black culture in Shady Side.

"There was a time in the history of African-Americans where religion was all they really had," said Vince Leggett, head of an Annapolis-based research project called Blacks of the Chesapeake. "They owned nothing, or were slaves, and had nothing of their own except their God and their worship. So they made it their own, and the result was very different from what whites practiced on Sunday."

The music and prayer at St. Matthew's is so boisterous, so heartfelt, that it is easy to imagine the clamor is audible somewhere very far above.

"I suppose the way we worship would be a turnoff to some white people," said Teresa Fountain, a member of St. Matthew's since 1957. "And that very likely is one of the reasons these neighboring churches have always stayed separate."

Fountain and her husband, John, attended segregated schools. So did one of their children, and the black couple remember the years leading up to the Supreme Court's striking down of the "separate but equal" doctrine in 1954.

"But our grandchildren don't," the 60-year-old woman said. "And I guess we may be raising a generation that someday will say, 'Why are we keeping these two churches separate?' We now go to school together, work together, play sports together. Why not pray together?"

'Things are good here'

Today, sensitive to the separation of races at the two churches, many white locals point out that families in Shady Side were among the first in Maryland to free their slaves.

"Things are good here," said Howard Shenton, a 79-year-old white man who moved to Shady Side as a boy, in the days when roads were paved with oyster shells and the only ways on and off the peninsula were by horse or steamboat. "As far as race relations go, things have always been good, I'd say."

Shenton, a retired marine police-man, calls the Chesapeake Bay surrounding Shady Side "the great equalizer."

"Out there, catching oysters or crabs or fish or whatever else, it works this way," he said. "You work hard, you make it. If not, you don't."

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