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Merlene Davis: Could black and white churches merge and prosper in Lexington?

Pastors H.B. Charles Jr., left, and Michael Clifford will be co-pastors in a merger of churches, one featuring a predominantly black congregation and the other a white one.
Pastors H.B. Charles Jr., left, and Michael Clifford will be co-pastors in a merger of churches, one featuring a predominantly black congregation and the other a white one.

On Jan. 4, the financially stable Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., is scheduled to merge with the struggling Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park, Fla.

Churches do that all the time.

But what's different in this scenario is that Shiloh's 8,000 members are predominantly black and Ridgewood's 600 are mostly white. Shiloh is acquiring Ridgewood, and a new church will be established where Ridgewood stands called Shiloh Baptist Church, Orange Park.

The leaders of both churches and their congregations have been working out the bugs since last summer.

Shiloh is in the same city where Jordan Davis was killed over loud music. Both churches are not far from Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman.

Both ministers said they hoped their intentional inclusiveness will serve as salve on those wounds. As the economy slowed and as churches began losing members, many churches have either died or merged in order to survive. The push to integrate was stimulated by money or expediency, not love.

In Louisville, predominantly black St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and predominantly white Shively Heights Baptist Church merged in August 2009, creating St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights.

In the beginning the two ministers, who were longtime friends, worked at the merger to keep the blend intentional. One report said the Sunday schools had one black and one white teacher, and committees were racially balanced.

It is still working successfully.

So, could that situation work in Lexington? I'm not talking about a few members here and there. Could established churches merge in Lexington, blending black and white congregants and survive without falling back to one race or the other?

The Rev. Adam Jones of Open Door Church said it could happen and should.

"I think there are still major divisions in Lexington," he said. "I would be supportive of the effort, even if it didn't work. I think it would be worth attempting that."

The church is the last bastion of segregation although Scripture admonishes us to be of one body, he said. Still, "some of the Christian non-profits have been a better witness to that unity than the churches have," he said.

But we attend churches voluntarily. We go where we want to go. That often means we avoid the discomfort of crossing racial and cultural lines, despite the God we go to worship.

Pastor Anthony Everett of Wesley United Methodist Church said the pastors have to have some competency in understanding both cultures that would merge.

"I think it can happen anywhere," he said. "I don't know if at this particular time that scenario can happen in Lexington."

When Jesus gave The Great Commission to his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, he was telling us to address the different ethnicities of the world, Everett said.

"Until people can really deal with other cultures, (be) respectful of each others' cultures, I don't really see it happening," he said.

The effort to merge and stay merged has to be intentional, Jones said. "Left to our own preference, we will continue the status quo," he said. "There has to be a couple of groups that decided we are going to work on this and I think we are doing some of that in BUILD (Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action)," said Jones, who serves as co-chair of that group's affordable house committee. "Sitting across from leaders in BUILD has helped a lot."

Jones said he has been awakened to prejudice over the years and now "makes sure those sitting across the table from me are not all looking like me."

And "if pastors don't do it, then maybe the people can do it themselves," Jones said.

But heaven won't be segregated by race or culture. Why are we so different on Earth?

"Until we can deal with some of the issues of race that segregate us here on Earth, then we are not going to emulate heaven," Everett said. "This country does not speak to the issue of race. It is not spoken of. It is almost a mute point. But it is real for those suffering racism."

The church must address that, he said.

Jones agreed, saying maybe a good start would be in small groups, which is what they have found to work at Open Door.

"It's not just inviting someone to you, but going to them as well," Jones said.

"It's kind of like the Christmas story," he said. "He (Jesus) came to our world."

He came and suffered in hopes we would learn to love one another.

All we have to do is share a pew.

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