Racial reconciliation in deed?


Can there be anyone who has not read or heard about the stirring ideals of racial reconciliation made concrete in the inauguration of Barack Obama, the son of a white mother and a black father?

But as New York Times writer Michael Powell points out in this well-researched, sometimes painful-to-read but moving article on two Washington churches with a common birthright, the historical reality is often a lot messier.

In the few paragraphs that begin his story, Powell sums up its theme of historic alienation and new hope:

Two Methodist churches have stood on the same block on Capitol Hill for a century, one congregation black and the other white, and in between lies the sorry detritus of a nation’s racial history.

Again and again these congregations have tried to bridge centuries of misunderstanding, only to falter and drift back. This week they will try again, throwing open their doors together to tend to those celebrating the inauguration of the first black president.

“We did not choose but it was chosen for us that we would come together at this moment,” said the Rev. Alisa Lasater, the pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. “If we want to be the heart of our community, we need to learn to see into each others’ heart.”

In the voice of these churchgoers can be heard the story of race in the nation’s capital and perhaps in the country itself. There are slights and misunderstandings and reconciliations, with miles traveled and more to go. President-elect Barack Obama spoke to such divisions recently in an interview with ABC News, saying he wanted to find that rare church that spanned Washington’s separate worlds, not least of race.

Moving seamlessly back and forth between the perspectives of clergy and parishioners in the two historic churches, Powell presents both the common values they share — and where they differ.

The churches didn’t choose to come together, according to Powell. They were ordered to by their judicatory, the regional Methodist Conference.

In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a “liberal bastion,” civil rights doesn’t divide the congregation, but gay ordination does.

And there are other contrasts.

Capitol Hill United charted an inverse arc. As Ebenezer surged, Capitol Hill’s white members — F.B.I. agents, mint workers, police officers — moved to the suburbs. Now its congregation is growing. One young dynamic woman has followed another as minister, having an effect not unlike defibrillators clamped to the church’s heart.

The congregation regards talk of partisan politics as plague. “We try not to ask who you work for,” Ms. Levenshus said. “Although one member said it was much easier to come out as a gay man than as a Republican.”

In 2005, after years of prayer and passionate debate, it became a “reconciling congregation,” which is to say it openly welcomes gay men and lesbians and favors gay ordination. A few older members walked out.

Here’s the only place where I think Powell could have done a more thorough job — contrasting the liberal policy at Capitol Hill United Methodist with that of its home denomination.

Here’s a link to the more conservative national policy of the United Methodists, which says that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In fact, there is a network of “reconciling congregations” across the country, and I would like to know whether this stand puts the church at odds with the local bishop, receives his or her tacit blessing, or is, in fact, geographically typical.

But that’s a whole ‘nother article.

What we see in Powell’s article is what happens when two Christian congregations try to bridge almost two centuries of racial separation, age and culture–examined in a way that shows sensitivity without condescension.

Model of “Little Ebenezer Church” from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Jerry

    The story had many different aspects: race, gentrification, generational age difference, theology and worship styles. Covering all those issues in a story is no mean feat.

  • Michel

    Here in Ottawa, Canada we have a number of Roman Catholic Churches on the same block. In each case, one is an Catholic church meant to serve an English-speaking congregation and the other is meant to serve a French-speaking congregation. The most notorious examples are Saint Joseph’s built in 1856 and Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart), built in 1889 that are directly across the street from another. When the original Sacre Coeur burnt down in the 1980s, a new church was built on the same spot even though neither parish drew anywhere near enough people to justify the size of the building they were occupying. In other words, we realized a disturbing history without any racial difference.

    I won’t deny that race has something to do with the differences in the two Methodist churches cited in the article but quite possibly it has considerably less to do with it than cultural differences. In any case, when I read articles like the New York Times example cited above I always wonder if constantly raising racial awareness is a very good way to eliminate racism. It seems more likely to do the exact opposite to me and in 2009 we seem to be more race conscious than ever before, thanks in a large part to publications such as the New York Times.

  • http://www.intersected.org Chris Blackstone

    It’s interesting that both churches, located on Capital Hill, are so small and segregated while Capital Hill Baptist, also located on Capital Hill, is remarkably integrated for an American evangelical church and has over 600 members and close to 900 attenders on the Sunday. Would have been nice to read more about how the theology of *all* the churches on Capital Hill affects their size, influence, and history. You don’t have to go far from Capital Hill to find African Americans who attend church, but I would suspect they attend out in the Maryland suburbs.