“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King
On Sunday mornings for more than 100 years, black and white Methodists in this Oldham County community praised the Lord in separate, segregated churches less than 300 yards apart.
Their messages were the same, though not always often applied in daily living — love Jesus with all your heart, mind and soul and the person in front of you.
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Their major church rituals were similar — worship services with singing, prayer and preaching, baptisms for their babies, marriages for their young adults and funerals for their dead with the promise of everlasting life.
In 1968, with the formation of the United Methodist Church, the two churches started sharing the same pastor. The white pastor served both churches, usually preaching at the white church at 11 a.m. and at the black church at 12:30 p.m.
The churches were just three blocks apart in distance but much farther apart in personal relationships.
When talk emerged in 1995 of uniting the 150-or-so-member white church of La Grange United Methodist with the nearby black church of Kynett United Methodist, which had about 20 members, to build a new church building, each church initially clung tight to their identities.
“At first, I didn’t like the idea,” said Ida Beaumont, who had attended Kynett for more than 60 years. “I didn’t want to give up my memories of my church. But I realized you can serve God anywhere. I got on board with the idea.”
Not everyone did so enthusiastically.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Beaumont. “Each church lost members. Some whites didn’t want to go to church with blacks and some blacks didn’t want to go to church with whites. But I’ve never regretted it, no, no, no.”
At 10:30 a.m. Jan. 3, the Rev. Terry Faris, the pastor who brought the two churches together to form Covenant United Methodist Church in La Grange, will preach at a 20-year anniversary celebration of the uniting of the churches.
“Change is always hard,” said Faris. “Our bishop at the time (Robert Morgan) often said the only person who likes change is a wet baby. But it has worked and should be applied more in other churches.”
Faris, a Maysville native who retired in 2008 after 44 years of pastoral ministry and is now living in Wilmore with his wife, Judy, said he would ask people who opposed the idea of uniting the two churches what they would think about a Kroger in La Grange for whites and another one for blacks.
“They would say that would be unnecessary, crazy and not financially smart for Kroger,” Faris said. “Then I would ask why in the world should we have segregated Methodist churches in downtown La Grange. They couldn’t give me an answer.”
The National Congregations Study, a survey run by Duke University, shows that churches in America are slowly becoming less segregated.
“Many are still segregated, but there have been some good, positive increases in recent years in integrated churches in this country,” said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke.
Nearly 20 percent of American churchgoers were in all-white congregations in 1998, the first year of the national study, said Chaves. That dropped to 11 percent in 2012, the most recent year data were collected, he said.
There are 350,000 to 400,000 churches in America, said Chaves.
He noted that Catholic churches tend to be more diverse than Protestant churches. About 15 percent of Catholic churches were racially diverse in 1998 and about 26 percent were in 2012.
Lowell Langefeld of Frankfort was district superintendent for the the two churches when they voted to merge in October 1995.
“Terry was very interested in building a new church,” said Langefeld, who could not recall any other churches uniting as Covenant has. “Both La Grange and Kynett had old facilities. Terry thought the two churches should unite, and I agreed. We invited both churches to the process.”
The opposition mostly came from the white church, said Langefeld. “A very prominent man at La Grange didn’t like it at all. He left. It was tough on Terry, but he knew it was the right thing to do.”
Members of both churches said difficulties arose but never any overt hostility.
Kathy Deaves, who had been at La Grange church since 1979, said the two churches had shared in some programs, such as vacation Bible school in the summers and concerts at Christmas.
“The blacks would come to the white church for things like that, but I don’t recall whites ever going to Kynett,” Deaves said.
Beaumont said the only time she got upset was when a woman from La Grange church advised her to “not be so vocal about the two churches coming together, and that I’d better go home and ask my mother about all this.
“I was in my 60s, and this woman wanted me to ask my mother about this,” Beaumont said. “It was condescending to say the least.”
When it came time for the two congregations to vote on unification, 100 percent of the Kynett congregation approved, Langefeld said. It was 77 percent at La Grange, he said.
When the two churches joined, some white members asked Beaumont if they should call her black, African-American or Negro.
“I told them it would be fine if they just called me ‘Ida,’” she said.
Mel Wilhelm, an associate pastor at Covenant, said the percentages of whites and blacks at the church with about 300 attendees have remained about the same. He said the percentages reflect the racial diversity of the community of 8,000-plus.
Whites and blacks who lived through the unification agree that black members gave up more of their traditions to make Covenant a reality, particularly in musical preferences.
The congregations of the two former churches started meeting together in January 1996 at what had been the white church.
On Easter Sunday 2000, they moved to their modern church at 909 West Jefferson Street, just west of the old La Grange church.
Both of the old churches have been sold. County government offices are in the old La Grange building. A dance studio operates at the old Kynett.
Raynettia Egland, a retired special federal agent with the IRS who moved from Georgia to La Grange in 2006, joined the integrated Covenant Church that year.
Egland said she was looking for a church with a good youth ministry for her son, Jordan, then a fifth-grader who now is a student at Jefferson Community College.
She said she did not know the history of Covenant when she joined the church.
“It didn’t really make a difference to me that there were blacks or whites in the church,” she said. “I wanted my son to learn the Word and make good friends. He has at Covenant. It’s a wonderful, warm church. I love it. I’m a fan.”