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Unity talks, mergers cross racial divide


CHICKASHA, Okla. — In sectioned-off portions of the fellowship hall, black and white church members tackled generations of prejudice, mistrust and racism.

In a smaller classroom not far away, their children had the problems solved.

Stamping their feet as they sang, “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” the youths marched across the racial divide as if it never existed.

Members of the mostly white Southern Oaks church and mostly black First and Georgia church, both in this western Oklahoma town, discussed topics ranging from “socioeconomic stratification” to interracial dating during the churches’ second Unity Fair.
The fair concluded with a joint Sunday morning worship service April 17. A few hours later and 550 miles east, in Vicksburg, Miss., the predominantly black Bypass church and predominantly white Magnolia church hosted their first service as a merged congregation.

“God can break down barriers,” said Bypass minister Willie Nettle, who shares the pulpit with Magnolia minister Wayne Moore. “In heaven there won’t be separate quarters for whites and blacks, or Jews and gentiles.”

MISSISSIPPI: CLOSED DOORS LEAD TO UNITY

Driving into Vicksburg, Miss., Dean and Nellie Caldwell routinely passed the Bypass Church of Christ.

They had considered placing membership there, but believed that the church’s minister, Willie Nettle, was focused on reaching Vicksburg’s black community.

A few months later Nettle approached the Caldwells’ congregation, the Magnolia church, about merging. Most of the Magnolia members agreed “this is what God wanted from the very beginning of time — for us to be unified,” Nellie Caldwell said.

The new church, which meets in the Bypass building and has retained the name Bypass Church of Christ, had 196 in attendance June 12, Nettle said. The racial mix is nearly half black and half white.

The merger followed what church member Gerald Bailey described as “a very bad December.” Leadership conflicts split two predominantly white churches in the Vicksburg area.

The Magnolia church resulted from one of those splits and began meeting in December. By April, the church had grown to about 120 people, squeezed into a two-room rented office.

The new congregation began looking for property, but “God kept closing doors for us,” Nellie Caldwell said.

In addition to Bypass there are at least two mostly white and one mostly black churches of Christ in the area, so the merger had many positives, Bailey said.

“We’re not establishing another church here in Vicksburg, which I don’t think should take place,” he said.

Dean Caldwell served with other Magnolia and Bypass members on what came to be known as the “unity steering committee.” The group met weeks before the merger, discussing the logistics of worship, the church budget and the curriculum for Bible classes. The committee tried to address potential conflicts before they arose, Nettle said.

A few families from the Magnolia church opted not to attend the new church. But in the weeks that followed the merger, some have returned, and visitors from the community – of both races – have attended, Dean Caldwell said.

Members of both churches made compromises. Bypass members were used to long services and now are more mindful of “the amount of time we allow for worship,” Nettle said. Magnolia members were accustomed to near-silence during sermons, but Bailey said that they’re learning to appreciate messages dotted with “Amen’s” from the congregation.

“I think that sometimes we are a little bit restrained and we shouldn’t be,” he said.

Nettle said that he’s familiar with the reasons given by black and white churches for staying separate.

“I think that it’s past time … that we stop getting behind all these excuses that we’ve been using for years,” Nettle said, “that we get back to Jesus’ call.”

OKLAHOMA: PONDERING A MERGER

Black and white churches in Chickasha, Okla., are exploring the possibilities of a similar merger, said Steve Parker, minister for the predominantly white Southern Oaks church.

The church has co-sponsored two unity fairs with the mostly black First and Georgia church.

The two congregations have combined services on the fourth Sunday of each month. Willie Mays, minister for First and Georgia, and Parker often share the pulpit.

On June 16 Parker told the Chronicle that representatives of both congregations are moving toward a merger, but continuing to discuss leadership issues.

“We want to make sure there’s a merger, rather than a congregation that gets absorbed,” Parker said.

KNOWING WHEN IT’S RIGHT

Mergers between black and white churches “have the potential for tremendous impact, especially in cities … where race relations continue to be strained,” said Leonard Jarman, minister for Christ’s Church of the Inland Empire, Moreno Valley, Calif., who has studied race relations among churches of Christ.

“In my experience, there are some areas where some black churches of Christ and some white churches of Christ are not very compatible in what they believe, teach and practice,” he said.

“It would be a mistake to merge groups that could not come to consensus on what is the ‘glue’ that holds the church together.

“If similarities abound and common ground can be found, it may be the right thing to do for some churches.

“For others, simply more interaction and effective bridge building between white and black churches of Christ for kingdom purposes may be the answer.”

In the minds of several teenagers in Oklahoma, those bridges are built, and merging is the logical next step.

Alphonso Scallion, of the First and Georgia church, and Alana Settle, of Southern Oaks, are both freshmen at Chickasha High School. They’ve had several classes together, so sharing a church pew seems natural.

“It sort of doesn’t make sense,” Scallion said. “If we all believe the same thing and worship the same God, why shouldn’t we be together?”

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