Nearer to God, and one another

Churches in Eastern Shore village, black and white, gather at worship

December 23, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

NANTICOKE — NANTICOKE-- --The distance between the two Methodist churches in this Eastern Shore village is little more than a mile. Yet for decades, it seemed as if a great gulf separated them.

One church was black. The other was white. Though the two communities in the watermen's town got along fine, come Sunday, people went their own way.

White families flocked to Nanticoke Road for prayers at the picturesque Nanticoke United Methodist Church. Black families followed the narrow roads east to the equally pretty Asbury United Methodist Church on Hickman Lane.

Then, about 10 years ago, after the two congregations held a Bible school together, a few parishioners decided that they should get together more often, maybe once a month for worship and a meal.

Before long, crowds from both churches filled the fellowship hall on Saturday nights for heaping plates of lasagna and chicken pot pie, then gathered again on Sunday mornings to sing "This Little Light of Mine" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

A decade later, the monthly joint service is a part of life here. But to longtime members of both parishes who grew up in segregated times, it still seems extraordinary.

"I never thought I would live to see something like this," said Mary Cornish, a longtime Asbury member who raised her children in Nanticoke but now lives in Salisbury, about 20 miles away. "I was born in the 1930s. We never had anything like that when we were coming up."

Even her daughter, Debra Evans, was surprised it happened.

"When I was growing up, the schools kind of integrated," said the 53-year-old nurse. "But the churches never did. I guess that's just what the times were."

The Sunday church service - what Martin Luther King Jr. once called "America's most segregated hour" - is still largely homogeneous in many American communities. Steve Laffey, a doctor and retired Eastern Shore minister, thinks he knows why.

"We all have our own language. We all speak English, but we use it differently from church to church," said Laffey, who sings in the choir at Nanticoke United Methodist and also at the joint service. "We're comfortable with our language, we get accustomed to the way it is spoken, and we're not too happy when someone changes it on us," Laffey said.

And yet in Nanticoke, residents say, the decision to integrate was greeted mostly with praise.

Gather for meal

The monthly potluck dinner grew to include other churches in the area, including a white Episcopal congregation and two other small black churches in neighboring towns. Most nights, about 70 people show up, crowding the long buffet table with so many sweet potato pies and vegetable casseroles that organizer Peg Hewison often wonders where she's going to put all of the food.

The effort has brought together longtime neighbors who never really knew each other.

"The fellowship is so great, you know, all of us coming together like this," said Dorothy Eggliston, a 78-year-old resident of neighboring Bivalve who has been coming to the dinner for years.

Growing up on the Eastern Shore, Eggliston said, she didn't socialize with white folks - "all we did was go to work for them," she said.

Maryland's Eastern Shore has not always been associated with racial harmony. Cambridge was the site of riots in the 1960s that burned much of its black business district. North of Nanticoke in the Wicomico County town of Mardela Springs, a councilman provoked outrage in 1992 when he referred to Martin Luther King Day as "Buckwheat's Birthday."

The joint service's founding members say no specific event motivated them. It was just time.

"We just wanted to get together, to worship together, to show that there is love," said the Rev. Anna McIntosh, the longtime pastor of Asbury.

Nanticoke choir director and chicken farmer Earl Beardsley put it another way: "We're all Methodists, so what's the difference?'"

There are some differences. Asbury's service lasts two hours and includes soulful singing, swaying and clapping to a gospel choir made up of members from both ministries, with Beardsley on piano. As she preaches, McIntosh seems overcome by her own words, her body shaking and her eyes closed as she asks the Lord to take care of her family and others stricken with illness. As she pauses, the other worshipers answer "A-men, A-men," and nod their heads knowingly.

Nanticoke United Methodist shares its pastor, the Rev. Billy Frick, with two other small churches in the towns of Tyaskin and Bivalve. Together, the three white churches are the Westside Ministries. The joint service alternates among their three buildings when it's not at Asbury. Frick's service lasts an hour, and he describes it as traditional.

Room to change

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.