Hagerstown churches find common ground

Once separated by race, Methodist congregations grow closer

October 17, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Hagerstown -- Almost 189 years ago, Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury visited John Wesley United Methodist Church, as it is now known, and was unhappy with what he saw. African-Americans were relegated to one part of the sanctuary, and some say blacks weren't allowed to take Communion.

Asbury was instrumental in buying property down the street and helping black members start their own church, since renamed Asbury United Methodist. Though there has been a move and a fire, the two downtown churches have never been situated more than 200 yards apart.

To this day, Asbury, a red brick building with white trim, and John Wesley, a commanding gray stone edifice, are separated by a thin alley a child could skip down in minutes. But one has always been predominantly white and one has been predominantly black, and they've always been separate. Until now.

As Asbury's membership continues to age and dwindle, and John Wesley's also seeks to regain congregants, the two churches have entered into an unusual arrangement: They share a minister.

This summer, the Rev. Brenda Mack became the pastor at Asbury and the associate pastor at John Wesley - where she is the church's first female and first black minister. As the formal relationship between the two institutions evolves, she is serving as a 200-yard-long bridge of sorts.

"If I love the people on both sides of this equation, they'll trust me on both sides and will come together in ways that grow us," Mack said. "As people get to know one another, we get over our apprehensions, fears, prejudices, inhibitions."

The churches might eventually share resources or programs, though the shape of the future relationship is still ill-defined. "We're building the plane as we fly it," said the Rev. Richard Jewell, John Wesley's senior pastor.

"I personally think it's long overdue," said Gann Breichner, 60, who began attending John Wesley as a child. "That might have been part of the social acceptance many, many years ago, but we're all God's children. ... Hopefully, it's something that will set an example and strengthen our community as a whole. I certainly hope so."

This fall, the two churches held a joint service at John Wesley to celebrate their new ties. White families sat next to black families, and together the churches' choirs sang "Precious Lord Take My Hand."

"When we started to rehearse, the [John Wesley] soprano soloist said, `Oh, I'm getting goose bumps,'" said Ken Stoops, the music director from the larger church. "It reminded me of the German word Gem?tlichkeit, which means a real feeling of well-being and wellness. That's what it sounded like to me."

Some parishioners, newly praying side by side, were surprised to find that the strangers from down the street weren't really strangers at all: Many already knew each other from work or the community.

"When we get to heaven, that's the way it's going to be anyway. There's not going to be any racial groups in one section," said Lenzlea F. Mosby Jr., 72, a longtime Asbury parishioner. "Maybe this is a prelude of what's to come."

This is not the first time two Methodist churches - one black, one white - have united in some fashion. Notably, McKendree United Methodist Church and Potomac Park United Methodist Church in Cumberland merged over the summer.

The Methodist Church officially views diversity as a core value, and has a history of sharing pastors, pooling resources and building alliances among congregations, said the Rev. John Rudisill, the district superintendent for the Cumberland-Hagerstown District. "We're very much committed to removing any barriers that exist between Christian people," he said.

At the same time, church leaders tend to proceed delicately when building bridges across racial lines, balancing the impulse to strengthen ties or meld congregations with the desire to preserve churches' individual cultures and histories.

"We're not interested in homogenization," Rudisill said.

Given the changes in the country's religious and political climate, it's not surprising that some churches that once separated over racial issues are taking steps back toward each other, said Arthur Sutherland, a theology professor at Loyola College in Baltimore.

"In many ways, it's easier for churches that split over race to come together than for those that split over doctrinal matters," he said.

Yet the idea of modifying or reshaping churches with distinctively African-American identities leaves many people unsettled.

At a time when blacks couldn't go to public libraries or recreation centers, African-American churches were the one place blacks were always afforded respect and dignity, Sutherland said. "So that tradition is not going to be easily replaced. That would be, in the eyes of many, a loss."

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