‘Grandmother church’ of Dallas fights for its future
DALLAS — The steeple at the Skillman Church of Christ…
CINCINNATI — In some ways, in many ways, they couldn’t be more different.
Greg Jasper, 51, was born and raised in Cincinnati. He looks every inch of the veteran firefighter he is. Fit. Tailored. Polished. Piercing hazel eyes and a boyish grin engage whomever he greets even before he speaks. His EMT training convinced him during the pandemic that it wasn’t safe to have so many people gather in one location, so the Indian Mound Church of Christ, where he was the minister, went virtual for most of a year.
James Kent, 53, sports an untucked, pink plaid shirt with pale blue rhinestone cuff links that stretch 2 inches across. Kent, a Chicago native, was the interim minister for the historic Kennedy Heights Church of Christ, which never closed during the pandemic even though he was fighting his own battle with diabetes and complications from congestive heart failure, and both he and his wife, Ivy, had cancer.
In other ways, these two men traveled similar roads before their paths converged along with the congregations they led.
When the pandemic began, Jasper’s congregation was already three churches in one. Back in 2017, the Norwood Church of Christ, a predominantly White group, had merged with the predominantly Black Madisonville Church of Christ to become Indian Mound. The two met in the same building as a third body, the Spanish-speaking Iglesia de Cristo, just three miles from the historic Kennedy Heights church where Jasper grew up.
“The historic” part is important to both of them. The congregation that meets today in the 1980s era building on Red Bank Road has taken the name The Church of Christ at Kennedy Heights, signifying change but honoring the past.
It includes the Spanish-speaking group, which meets for Sunday worship at 3 p.m., though they’ve already joined for the first of what Jasper hopes will be bimonthly bilingual worship services.
The merger of the two congregations — Indian Mound and the original Kennedy Heights — culminated the first Sunday in March after a process begun formally in December 2021 but originating in conversations that preceded the pandemic.
As congregations nationwide look for ways to sustain healthy fellowships while numbers decline, leaders of Kennedy Heights and Indian Mound found a way through unification.
Tracking the lineage of the predominantly Black congregations in Cincinnati almost requires a Venn diagram. Today, there are three: Gray Road, which is the largest; Kennedy Heights; and a small church plant in South Cummunsville, called CUMO, which stands for Cincinnati Urban Ministry Outreach. It’s supported by one of the area’s larger White congregations, the Withamsville Church of Christ, as well as the Northeast Church of Christ and individual Christians.
But even before the historic Kennedy Heights church was born, there was Madisonville. In fact, on his very first Sunday at church, Jasper’s parents were called on by the Madisonville minister, Herbert Belle, to bring their infant son to the front, and he prayed for God to work in the child’s life.
In telling the story he’s heard retold many times, Jasper said, “They didn’t do that kind of thing in the Church of Christ then, but he did it. And here I am, a minister, at Kennedy Heights.”
Edie Dishon will be 87 in December. She became a member of the Norwood congregation 59 years ago and remembers when it had 241 members and had to add a second Sunday service. Over the years, however, membership declined. The church went back to one service and by 2017 merged with Madisonville.
“People just didn’t evangelize like they used to,” Dishon said. By the time the two groups merged, Norwood was down to just 15 people.
Pandemic challenges compounded by back problems have relegated the widow of 15 years to attending worship via Facebook Live each week, but she still feels like she’s a part of the new Kennedy Heights group, and she loves minister Jasper.
“Greg is a wonderful, wonderful leader, and he sure does work,” Dishon said. “He’s sincere. If anybody loves the Lord, Greg does.”
Jasper finished a degree in ministry from the now-defunct Cincinnati Christian University in 2013 and took over as senior minister at Madisonville that same year. Previously he’d spent 23 years at Gray Road, serving as a deacon and youth minister.
Plus, he’s a lieutenant and full-time Cincinnati firefighter. He sure does work.
“A lot of people thought I’d be the successor (at Gray Road),” Jasper said, “but leadership had a different idea and brought in an outside minister, and I believe the Lord led me to the Madisonville group.”
He’d been helping out there for about six months when the senior minister died, and leadership asked Jasper to take over. At that point Norwood was shrinking, but Madisonville grew from just 15 to about 80.
A short distance away, the historic Kennedy Heights group was also feeling the strain of numerous changes in leadership, style and, eventually, the pandemic, all of which led to Kent becoming interim minister.
Kent’s ministry journey through congregations in three states and overseas will soon continue in yet another city as senior minister for the Glass City Church of Christ in Toledo, Ohio, where his mentor, Robert Birt, is retiring.
Kent first met Birt when he was a teenager in Jacksonville, Fla., where he began preaching at age 17 before heading to Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, a historically Black college associated with Churches of Christ.
After graduating from Southwestern in 1989, he first returned to Jacksonville, then entered the Army and was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he preached on Sundays when the traveling evangelist was out of town. After completing his military service, he returned to Florida to finish a bachelor’s degree in computer technology at Florida A&M University.
“Through my church life, I was always singing also, and one of the guys I sang with in Tallahassee, his father used to be an elder at historical Kennedy Heights,” Kent explained.
So Kent landed at the Cincinnati congregation for the first time in 1995 and worshiped there for three years before his tech job took him to Kansas City. He returned in 2000 and has been here ever since, as the lead minister changed several times, and attendance rose and fell.
A young minister, Mike Moore, was hired in 2014 and brought numerous changes, including a more progressive, youth-focused worship style and brightly colored stripes of orange, yellow and gray on the sanctuary walls. The congregation, which had declined to about 60, grew to more than 100 with the addition of younger families.
After Moore’s tenure, attendance dropped back to around 60, and Kent was appointed as interim minister. By August 2019, Kent said, the congregation found itself smaller and with depleted financial resources.
Because of the financial concerns, Kent said the leaders began discussions about merging with the Indian Mound church, which was growing.
For Jasper, the opportunity to unite was never about money: “As soon as Moore left, Indian Mound was saying, ‘We’ve got to come together.’”
Many Indian Mound members had been part of Kennedy Heights in the past and had relatives there.
“Us coming together was better than us being apart,” Jasper said. “It didn’t matter if they had a million dollars in the bank; we still wanted to talk about coming together.”
The first combined service of the newly named Church of Christ at Kennedy Heights took place March 6.
Leaders decided the congregation would meet at the Kennedy Heights building, which had more classroom and fellowship space, and unlike Indian Mound, was not landlocked, making expansion possible. The Indian Mound facility is for sale.
Both ministers said the transition has been good, but not always easy.
Just as Jasper had been passed over for the lead role at Gray Road years earlier, Kent stepped into an associate position after years of service at Kennedy Heights, including three as interim minister.
Merging the history, culture and worship styles of two congregations brought growing pains.
“Eight members of Indian Mound are not here yet — and others may be here but not fully comfortable,” Jasper acknowledged. He plans to meet with the former Indian Mound members about their concerns.
“The No. 1 complaint from both groups was not enough communication, and we’ve vowed to do better moving forward with anything we do,” the firefighter said.
“The No. 1 complaint from both groups was not enough communication, and we’ve vowed to do better moving forward with anything we do.”
The biggest compromise was about worship style.
Kent had continued his predecessor’s more progressive worship style.
“The acts of worship were the same, but we at historic Kennedy Heights had gone to praise teams and some things Black churches had implemented with bass mics,” also called beat box.
Indian Mound had not, and upon merging Kent yielded to Jasper’s preference for more traditional worship with song leaders but no praise team.
“I took a subservient role,” Kent explained quietly, but with a smile. “As leadership being a strength and a gift, I basically said, ‘OK, Lord, I will decrease.’ So, part of what I’m trying to do for those who’ve been under my leadership is to maintain some level of presence while they’re building their confidence.”
The sacrifice was not lost on Jasper.
“He’s more progressive than I am, and to his credit, as he saw God had an assignment for me here, there was no need for us to fight over these things.” Jasper said. “I applaud what he’s done, and he did it on a couple of things.”
Kent said the transition fulfills God’s plan for him, and he believes the merger frees him to move on to the new role in Toledo.
The group also is finding ways to combine ministries. Jasper’s wife, Tracey, particularly looks forward to Prayer and Praise in the Park, a tradition at Indian Mound, becoming part of Kennedy Heights’ outreach, where worship is conducted outdoors in a public park, and onlookers join in.
Tracey Jasper, who teaches social and emotional learning at an elementary school, was also deeply involved in youth and women’s ministries at Indian Mound. And Kennedy Heights has a history of an active women’s ministry.
She is responsible for livestreaming Sunday worship — and a recent gospel meeting, one of the congregation’s first big events since the merger became official.
Russell A. Pointer Sr., senior minister for the Minneapolis Central Church of Christ in Minnesota, exhorted the 50 or so assembled on Monday night of the meeting.
Sunday had seen a packed house of more than 100 and a potluck in the basement fellowship hall.
But Pointer called the Monday crowd the pure in heart. “You really want to be here.”
He likened the merger to a marriage.
“What you guys did here with the merger — you guys have to be humble — somebody’s got to be humble,” he said. “Family is a messy business — at the end of the day you’re my family, and we’re all we have. Satan wants to divide you. God wants to unite you.”
Edie Dishon watched as many of the meeting sessions as she could from home on Facebook Live. She commends the unification as well.
“I think the rewards have been great,” she said. “Everyone seems to truly love one another.”
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.