King's words prompt churches to share services

Black, white parishes reach out to each other

January 14, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - More than 40 years have passed since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described 11 a.m. on Sundays as the most segregated hour of the week, and in all that time not much has changed. Look around on any given Sunday. Worship remains essentially a tribal act. Whites pray here, blacks pray there, and that, you might say, is that.

"There are remarkably few congregations in this country that are truly integrated," said the Rev. William McD. Tully, the rector of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church at Park Avenue and East 50th Street.

"It's not just because of housing patterns or income," he said.

True enough, and religion is only part of the story. Go to a New York restaurant of any note, or visit a Broadway theater, or attend a concert at Lincoln Center, or a movie at the Lincoln Square emporium a few blocks away.

You might as well have Jim Crow laws for all the integration that takes place.

The reality is that, with some exceptions, blacks and whites don't do many things together except maybe ride the bus and the subways. Money alone - who has it, and who doesn't - cannot explain this stark separation. Yet there it is.

When it comes to prayer, de facto segregation makes absolutely no sense to Tully or to the Rev. Earlie Clemons, rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church on West 134th Street.

After months of talking about the situation, they decided to do something about it.

At 11 a.m. today, if all goes as planned, scores of congregants and choral singers from predominantly white St. Bartholomew's will be sitting in St. Philip's pews, raising their voices in prayer with regular worshipers at the Harlem church.

On Jan. 21, it will be the turn of the black congregation from St. Philip's to travel downtown to St. Bartholomew's.

It is no coincidence that the two services will sandwich the holiday tomorrow dedicated to King.

For many in New York, the King holiday has become one more occasion for political grandstanding, like the Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day parades.

But for others, this is a spiritual time.

The other day, Tully said, he was rereading King's 1963 essay "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

"People my age," the 54-year-old priest said, "can tell you when they first heard the message that Dr. King carried to his death: a kind of biblical justice. It is simply that we all relate to the same God, and we all tell the same basic truth.

"Equality is not a political concept for us. It's a direct theological concept."

Similar thoughts run through St. Philip's, a black congregation whose roots reach back to the 18th century. Outlining the history, a sign in front of the neo-Gothic church says, "This band of faithful Christians has weathered many storms."

Clemons, the rector, was not on hand to talk; a family emergency had taken him to Texas. But Emily Frye, a senior laywoman with the title of first warden, said the two churches, despite the color line and the contrasting worlds of Harlem and Park Avenue, were not nearly so different as they might seem.

"We're both really city churches," she said. "We're both motivated by looking to serve the cosmopolitan city of New York. St. Philip's doesn't see itself as a church for the black community. We see ourselves as a church for the city."

Each church has endured its share of hard times, which in the case of St. Bartholomew's, Tully said, made it "inwardly obsessed, when we should be focused more on the fabric of the city."

To do that, the two congregations reached out to each other, and the result is this joining in prayer for a few Sundays - almost an ecclesiastical equivalent to a home-and-home series between sports teams.

That will be the easy part. Not so simple is how to make it more than a fleeting feel-good exercise. No one in either church pretends to have a solution.

The candor is refreshing when you consider all the words that have gone into trying to get to the core of America's racial torment.

"We're not trying to think cosmically," Tully said. "We're just trying to take this thing wherever it goes."

Amen, Frye says.

"I like the idea that all we know is that we are searching," she said. "Searching calls for risk. But it also calls for faith. Our faith tells us there is hope and promise."

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