NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a young white minister, Michael Catt said he was fired from a Mississippi church for quoting Martin Luther King Jr. He never forgot it.
“Getting fired … was really a pivotal, defining moment for me,” he said.
Now 58, he’s pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and among a few churches taking steps to create – and maintain – multiethnic congregations more than half a century after King gave his poignant sermon about the divisiveness among so-called Christians.
In 1956, King wrote a sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in which he spoke as if the Apostle Paul were delivering a message to the modern-day church.
King said: “You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning … you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.”
There are currently between 300,000 and 350,000 congregations in the U.S., according to Michael Emerson, a sociology professor and co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, Texas. Ninety-two percent are homogeneous, meaning at least 80 percent of the congregation is comprised of a single racial group.
When Catt became pastor of Sherwood Baptist in 1989, he noticed his predominantly white congregation was a stark contrast to the small city of Albany, whose population is about 65 percent black and where few concessions were achieved from the city government after King visited there during the civil rights movement.
“You can’t pastor a church in a community that’s predominantly African American and look out on a lily white crowd, because you’re not being honest,” Catt recently told The Associated Press.
He began by diversifying the church’s leadership. He ordained its first black elder, and would later appoint a black senior associate pastor.
But it was a tragic flood in Albany in 1994 that eroded racial barriers even more and created a sense of unity that still exists today. Catt and his congregation reached out to the predominantly black Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which had been damaged by the flood.
There Catt met Senior Pastor Daniel Simmons, who is black, and the two forged a friendship that spawned a novel idea: pulpit swapping. Now, the two regularly preach at each other’s church and their congregations come together for those occasions.
Catt, Simmons and their mixed congregation are featured in a new movie “Courageous,” produced by Sherwood Baptist. The church was also behind the successful movie “Fireproof,” which grossed $33.4 million at the box office.
“We learn from each other,” Simmons said of the two churches. “We mutually support and encourage each other.”
Pastors Ken Whitten and Jeffery Singletary have a similar practice.
Whitten, who is white, is the pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., and Singletary, who is black, led the 50-member Mission of Life church in Tampa.
Whitten said he approached Singletary with the idea of starting a multiethnic church.
“If we’re going to change our culture, they’ve got to see it,” Whitten recalled telling him at the time.
From that conversation was born Singletary’s Exciting Central Baptist, which currently has about 760 members. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy attends, and late NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was a member.
For one of Selmon’s recent funeral services, Whitten allowed the service to be held at his nearly 10,000-member church and Singletary preached the eulogy, an example of how the two pastors also switch pulpits and merge their congregations.
Singletary says such a practice “aligns with the heart of the Lord.”
“When we look at scripture, God’s heart is on the nation; people of every tongue, of every tribe of every kindred,” he said. “We serve a Baskin-Robbins kind of a God; a God of 32 flavors or more.”
As was the case when there was a secular push for integration decades ago, multiethnic congregations have had resistance. Opponents often prefer a certain type of worship style or remain opposed to any type of change in regards to race.
Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said more congregations are “entertaining the question of becoming multiracial and multiethnic” because they’re starting to pattern the diversity of the neighborhoods around them.
But he acknowledged “predominantly white churches are often very, very reluctant to actively pursue a multiracial composition out of pure fear and ignorance,” and black churches “fear losing autonomy and tradition.”
Rice Broocks, senior pastor of Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tenn., has a congregation made up of people from more than 50 nations. While there may be some resistance, he believes churches like his are actually becoming more desirable.
“I believe that most pastors deep down would love to have a diverse congregation, they just don’t know how to do it,” said Broocks, who also heads similar churches in other parts of Middle Tennessee, as well as Dallas, New York and Phoenix. “And so my hope is … discussions like this are motivating and inspiring.”
Furman Fordham II is senior pastor of Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville, Tenn. He supports diversity, but understands why some ethnicities might want to have their own services, particularly when it comes to worship style.
For that reason, Riverside allows Latinos of the same faith to use a church building to have their own service, but also welcomes them to worship with the main congregation.
“I don’t think there should be this expectation for us as African-Americans to say … you must come in and worship according to an African-American style,” said Fordham, whose church has an International Day each year that recognizes the congregation’s different ethnicities.
“Because I think that’s what some of the Euro missionaries did to Africans. And I think that’s inappropriate. So somewhere in between there, I think that we give people an opportunity to participate with us, but we also give them the option to organize among their own.”
However, accepting a different worship style or diverse congregation could be tough for some if they can’t get past the color of the preacher.
Roland A. Scruggs, 73, recalled the first time he was asked by the United Methodist Church to pastor an all-white congregation just outside of Nashville, Tenn., in 1995. He said he had “mixed feelings” about going there, but received a warm welcome for the most part, except for a man who left the church because he wasn’t comfortable with a black pastor.
That man, Clifton Baker, talked to the AP recently, and the 64-year-old acknowledged that he “didn’t think it was a good fit for the church at first.”
But he said he eventually changed his mind and asked Scruggs if he could rejoin the church after hearing him preach and personally talking to him.
“We had several conversations and I found out we have a whole lot in common,” said Baker, who asked Scruggs to return to the church to christen his granddaughter. “We became very close friends, and still are.”
Ken Bevel, the black associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church, acknowledges the church is different from his roots. But he decided he didn’t just want to reach his own people, but “all people, all nations.”
“I’m used to being around certain people, but I’m willing to put that to the side to reach a bigger audience for Christ,” said Bevel, who is also a retired Marine and one of the stars of the movie “Courageous”.
As the nation prepares to dedicate a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington next month, his daughter, Elder Bernice A. King, hopes churches will embrace the universal beliefs of her father and understand that “God is global.”
“We’re going to have to create what we want to see in society within the church,” she said. “I think it begins in the church.”