How A Once-White Church Broke Down Racial Barriers
A white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man on a Sunday last month in Cincinnati.
The campus police officer was charged with murder for fatally shooting Samuel Debose after pulling him over for a missing license plate.
By now we know the string of other similar events that have brought deep-seated racial tensions to the surface.
Cincinnati has been confronting its own racial divisions for a long time. In 2001, an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a white police officer, launching days of riots.
Cincinnati spent years recovering — police reforms, economic revitalization — and for some residents, a new spiritual focus.
This week on For the Record: Changing a church. Click the audio link on this page to hear the full story.
'What's this reconciliation ... ?'
Fifteen years ago, Peoples Church in Cincinnati was called First Christian Assembly of God and was 98 percent white. After the riots of 2001, Pastor Chris Beard decided to take the church in a new direction. He drafted a mission statement and said the church would focus on racial reconciliation.
Ed Weithe, who is white, has attended Peoples Church for more than 20 years.
"I know pastor Chris felt like he had a vision from God for our church to become a church like heaven," Weithe says. "When he mentioned the word 'reconciliation,' it's like, we really didn't have any need for reconciliation with the body of believers that we had, because we were all white, all probably middle-to-upper class incomes, and we're thinking, 'What's this reconciliation all about?' "
Beard diversified the staff; he expanded the music to reflect many cultures; he asked his congregation to take a series of classes designed to help break down racial barriers.
Weithe remembers one class assignment: Go out into the world and make a friend who is different from you. Weithe read a news story about the local NAACP president.
Weithe gave him a call and invited him to breakfast.
"I told him that I'm reaching out to you as a white man to a black man, because I no longer want to sit on the sidelines and be part of the problem, I want to be part of the cure," he says. "We eat breakfast once every six weeks, and we've been doing that for almost 10 years now."
'This Is What It's Supposed To Feel Like'
Carole Patton, who is black, began attending Peoples Church not long after Beard began his efforts to diversify. It was uncomfortable, Patton says, but she became committed to Beard's vision.
At times she wished to be back in a black church. She felt it after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Michael Brown in Ferguson. But after nine parishioners were shot down in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina in June, Patton says she finally felt at home.
"Everybody was heartbroken over it," Patton says. "You know, it was like, wow, OK, this is what it's supposed to feel like ... when you can put yourself in my shoes and you can feel my pain. Yeah, it was different. It was wonderful and I felt like, what growth. What growth."
Today, Peoples Church is about 25 percent African American, 25 percent international and 50 percent white. Beard says the process has been a personal challenge.
"I've had sinful thoughts, racist thoughts in my own heart that I've had to come to terms with," he says. "The reality is we're human beings and our brains are wired to categorize. The more conscious we are of our implicit biases, the more healing we can be in our relationships."
First, I was surprised at how open Beard was about his own biases. During our interview he called himself "a recovering racist." He talked about how his grandfather was an evangelical preacher who used the N-word, and said he had to come to terms with how that shaped his own opinions about African Americans. He was willing to be brutally honest and expects the same from his congregation.
I also appreciated Weithe's honesty. A long-time member of the church, a white man in his 60s, Weithe called up the young black man who at the time had just become the president of the local NAACP and asked him to go to breakfast — which is kind of crazy. Can you imagine a white stranger calling a young, black man and saying, "Hey, let's be friends!" But it actually happened. They've been having breakfast together for more than a decade. And Weithe became a member of the NAACP.
Another thing that struck me was that Patton said had a hard time convincing her friends and family that it was a good idea to go to a white church to try to help it change. While her husband has come around and thinks what she's helping create at Peoples Church is good, he won't attend and has stayed at a predominantly black church. That's OK with Patton: She believes she is fulfilling a bigger mission.
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