Pastor puts bridge over racial divide

Ministry: More than 700 adults and children from various racial and cultural backgrounds worship Sundays at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia.

April 06, 2001|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Diversity and multiculturalism are more than just popular slogans at Columbia's Bridgeway Community Church.

The ideas become reality each Sunday as more than 700 adults and children gather for worship services in Smith Theatre at Howard Community College. According to Pastor David Anderson, the congregation is about 54 percent African-American, 14 percent Asian and Hispanic, and 32 percent white.

Achieving such diversity takes vision and a strategy to bridge the divide between the races, Anderson said.

As an African-American growing up in a predominantly white community in Prince George's County, he remembers being bused to a school of mostly white students. Anderson also recalls and police officers responding when a cross was placed on his front lawn by hostile neighbors.

"I saw the great divide," he said.

After becoming a Christian at age 18, Anderson realized his calling was to "build bridges ... specifically bridges between people and God ... but then also specifically with regard to multicultural ministry."

Anderson's bridge-building began in 1991 after completing his ministerial training in the Chicago area. "I sort of parachuted with flags into Columbia, Maryland, to start a multicultural church," he says. "Some people told me, `Well, you're coming into one of the most integrated communities in the country, so it should be easy.'"

"But that's not true," Anderson said, noting that only a handful of congregations in Howard County are significantly integrated.

Anderson's strategy for building the nondenominational Bridgeway Community Church began with assembling a multiracial staff, and then adopting a "creative, contemporary, informal" worship service that combines inspirational music and drama with biblical teaching.

Assistant Pastor David Michener, who is white, says that being part of a multicultural ministry is "part of my DNA, part of my heartbeat." He said that as "cultures and classes are clashing," as "gold coast meets ghetto ... it necessitates a reconciliation."

Anderson said that racial clashes are "not a skin problem, but a sin problem."

"The church is the only organism that's been given the spiritual resources to slay this ugly giant. ... Until I'm willing to get rid of sin - and I believe it's Christ who is the only one who cleanses us from that - [then] I'm going to cling on to my prejudices and to my prejudgments and to what's more comfortable for me than what Christ is calling to me [to do]."

Camela Williams of Columbia is a corporate diversity trainer and has worshiped at Bridgeway for two years. She recalls the first time she attended a service there.

"I went, and my mouth fell open. I'd never been in a church where there was such an incredible cross-section of people," she says.

Williams said it is unfortunate that, for most people, church is "the most segregated hour of the week." She calls Bridgeway a "multicultural army for God."

It was standing room only at a recent Bridgeway worship service. Visitors were greeted with a handshake and a "glad you're here."

Teen-agers joined in singing gospel songs to the accompaniment of guitars, saxophone and drums. Families of every racial description sat side by side with babies on their laps.

"The church is a safe place for mixed couples and blended families," Michener said.

With friend and white businessman Brent Zuercher, Anderson has co-written a book, "Letters Across the Divide" (Baker Books). It is a dialogue about race that begins with a question that Zuercher once asked Anderson: "Why are blacks so angry?"

In partnership with Bridgeway Community Church, the BridgeLeader Network is sponsoring a "Multicultural Leadership Summit" today and tomorrow at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baltimore.

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