Neither Jew nor Greek 1018

By John Armistead

Daily Journal

Three decades after the major bastions of racial segregation came tumbling down in Mississippi, most churches remain segregated.

Gone are the days, to be sure, when ushers stood guard at the doors of white churches to bar blacks from entering. Today's segregation is by choice.

But is this the way it ought to be? If not, what are some churches doing to change that tradition-bound pattern?

Based on Jesus' love

One congregation that in no way fits that typical Mississippi church pattern is Tupelo's New Life Fellowship. The ethnic breakdown of the 140 members who attend this rapidly growing church is 45 percent African American, 45 percent white, and the balance made up of Hispanics and Asians.

"Our growth is due to the people being together in unity and agreement," said the Rev. Larry Ritter, pastor. "The people are building bridges to other people and inviting their families, friends and neighbors to the assembly. And they are spending time in prayer."

Ritter feels the charismatic style of worship and music appeals to both blacks and whites. "The music is up-tempo, a combination of southern gospel and contemporary with black gospel occasionally mixed in with it."

But there is more to it than worship style. Many churches with similar music remain all white or all black. The difference in New Life Fellowship has much more to do with a particular philosophy shared by the pastor and congregation.

"As pastor, I refuse to tolerate racism in the church," said Ritter. "As a church we have made a conscious decision to be an open church."

The congregation recognizes that people are racially, culturally, and religiously different, and that each person's uniqueness is to be appreciate and accepted. No one is asked to become something else.

"Here at New Life, we made a decision to build bridges to all people so as to lead them to Jesus," said Ritter. "We feel that we are to carry the gospel to everybody.

"The color of the skin or economic status doesn't change the way a person feels. They are hurting and seeking hope and freedom from depression and the gospel brings them hope and healing and joy. That's what we are about as a church. It's in the love of Jesus that integrates us and nothing else."

Flowing with the Spirit

Another Tupelo congregation, Good News Church, has practiced an openness to all peoples since its founding in 1979. Approximately 10 percent of the membership is African American.

One of the most distinctive things about Good News is that it has a racially mixed ministerial team. The pastor, the Rev. Cecil Pumphrey, is white, and the church's minister of music, Tillmon Calvert, is black.

"We have a very free, exuberant style of worship and a lot of freedom to flow with the Holy Spirit," said Pumphrey. "Our worship on Sunday morning will last 45 minutes before we get into the word. Tillmon adds the soul flavor to it."

Pumphrey credits music ministry as a key component in the appeal of Good News to those who attend. "Music is the strongest part of the service," he said. "I think the praise and worship is the main attraction of our church."

The pastor sees the church's openness as a result of the Spirit's work. "We are a church with a real emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the spirit life and that there is neither Jew nor Greek nor bond nor free nor male nor female, that we are all one in Christ."

Cookies and love

Both Good News and New Life Fellowship are free and innovative in their worship styles, and the conviction that a church should be open to all people was built into the thinking of each church from its establishment. Older and more traditional churches, however, have not found attracting people of other races easy.

It is rare for a white church in Northeast Mississippi to have a single black member, and even rarer for a black church to have a white member.

Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo, the largest church in Northeast Mississippi, does have several blacks in its membership. Among these are Annie Jennings and her husband Charles. They joined Harrisburg five years ago.

"I love Harrisburg and I feel like God's Spirit is there," she said. "The members of the church are friendly to everybody regardless of the race they are and make you feel at home."

Why did they first decide to attend a large white church? "When we moved into the neighborhood, Harrisburg members had baked some cookies for us and came to visit. They asked us if we would consider coming to their church, and we took them up on it. When we went, we loved it."

Don West is one of the few white members of Tupelo's Mount Sinai Baptist Church. A carpenter and contractor, West began helping the church with its new building last fall and fell in love with the congregation. He joined in August.

"At Mount Sinai, I feel close to Jesus," he said. "It is the most joyous place I've ever been."

West is excited about participating in Mount Sinai's mission and future. "I believe the real communicator of the gospel of Jesus Christ will be the people of color and I want to be a part of that. We of the white race have a lot of pride about us that the black people don't have. I think they are more humble and submissive to God's will."

West's decision to join Mount Sinai was a spiritual one. "I went through the 'Experiencing God' [a study course] and learned the best way to experience God is to be where God is. That's why I joined."

Intentional efforts

The Rev. Warren Black, pastor of Oxford-University United Methodist Church, a predominately white congregation, has several black members. He wishes there were more.

Part of the cause of continued segregation in churches, Black feels, is that old attitudes remain. "I think the racial situation is deeper and more divisive than many realize," he said. "And our churches have not given the leadership to bring people together in worship and prayer and set the tone in society."

A good starting place, according to Black, in building greater understanding is for black and white churches to work together on common projects, especially mission work. Also, churches need to work harder at reaching out to others.

"I think our efforts have to be very intentional instead of just saying 'Y'all come,'" he said. "We talk about the different traditions that keep us apart. But we experience growth as we experience other traditions. I think these differing traditions could well grow us together."

A natural thing

Black's fellow United Methodist Church minister the Rev. Benjamin Wax pastors the all-black St. Peter United Methodist Church in Aberdeen. He feels the usual lack of understanding prevents people getting together.

"I think that once the people really know that the doors are open they will come on it," he said. "I think a lot of whites don't know how welcome they would be."

Like his colleague Black, Wax feels efforts must be intentional. "The church should be more inclusive and reach out beyond the four walls," he said. "Our churches have got to become so motivated that it will be a natural thing for us to reach out across racial lines."

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