In the Spotlight

News & Features
Reconciliation at Unity Baptist Church
By Chris Roberts
April 22, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

In the 1990s many churches are taking a more active role in addressing racial divisions in America. Black and white congregations are developing relationships with each other. Others call themselves "churches of reconciliation," and deliberately seek multi-racial parishioners to inhabit their pews. Two Baptist churches in St. Paul, one African-American and the other white, have taken reconciliation a step further; they've merged to become one.

YOU MIGHT CALL UNITY BAPTIST CHURCH, in the heart of St. Paul's racially diverse Summit-University neighborhood, a spiritual work-in-progress. Every Sunday morning its parishioners - the black former members of Open Door Baptist Church and the white former members of Park Baptist - take another deliberate step toward a new identity. On this Sunday nearly every aspect of the service, from the call to worship, to the hymn singing, to the offering, seems restrained and self-conscious - like the congregation isn't sure yet who it wants to be, until Pastor Ron Smith takes the pulpit and reminds them.

Smith: Our communities will continue to be divided and pulled apart by race, sex, and gender, until we, the church, stand up and speak up and speak out about righting what's wrong.
The union of Park and Open Door, and the move to Park's 100-year-old building, is just a little more than a month old. When the vote to merge occurred, it was hailed by observers as a culminating event, but viewed by clergy and members as a only a punctuation point in a long-evolving relationship. It began in 1991 when Pastor Ron Smith of Open Door, and Dave Johnson of Park, met at a Summit-University Clergy Council meeting and became friends. Eventually, the two began to discuss how their congregations could become partners. According to Smith, neither wanted to follow the traditional path of the suburban white church meeting the urban black church on Martin Luther King Sunday for choir exchanges, because Park and Open Door were neighbors.
Smith: Our two congregations at that time were eight blocks apart and the question became "what impact could we have on a community, and what impact could we have on our churches if, being eight blocks apart, we came together and began to work together to be about change?" And that was the step.
Johnson: We had no goals at the beginning. Our goal was not to merge the church, in fact we always told people that's not what we're trying to do. We don't have any vision we're trying to do. What we're trying to do is obey God, and we're trying to form a relationship.
What followed was four years of conversations between the two congregations, potluck gatherings, and pulpit exchanges until it was decided the two might try to worship together.
Smith: The first worship service was a disaster. I don't remember what the hymn was, but the pianist played it in one key and was moving the choir and the congregation in one direction. Then you add the pipe organ and its overpowering sound, in a different key, moving at a different pace - I wish I could remember the song, but it was a tug-of-war.
The tug of war continued for another four months, until the discussion turned to developing a permanent relationship. Church leaders hired a consultant, focus groups were held, and surveys were taken.
Johnson: After about a year of all that kind of work, the conclusion was that everyone preferred it the way it used to be. Everyone did not like it the way it was - they liked it better the way it used to be. The other part was, they said, that they believed God wanted us to be this way. The new way.
A key turning point came when clergy and members of both churches went to a three day dismantling racism workshop sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches. The seminar's basic precepts, that racism has always existed and is systemic in America, and that white people have privileges in society others don't, put the two congregations on the same page, according to Pastor Smith.
Smith: When a person of color says "racism," white people turn, yeah, react - when a person of European descent says "immigration," I react because it's always been a one-way street with people of color going. And so we needed to find some common language, and I think their definition and principles were what helped us turn the corner, because we gotta get beyond the warm, the sensitivity part, and talk about the real pain. And I think that helped us.
It was then that the real work began. How to meld two distinctly different worship styles was the biggest challenge, and many questions arose. How long should the service be? Should deacons be male or female, and what is their role? Should the pastor be more dictatorial, or more hands off, and should the service be more of a teaching event, or an opportunity for spiritual expression? How much noise should be allowed during the service? All these questions had an African American and a white answer, and somehow both had to be taken into account.
Angela James: I personally had a problem with the organ.
Angela James, a member of Open Door for ten years prior to becoming a member of Unity.
James: I mean it would drive, it drove me crazy. You know, it reminded me of old Bela Lugosi or something, you know. Weird music, and I couldn't stand it. And some of the Park members had a problem with spontaneous worship, you know, because when, you know, the choir would sing and it would be very inspirational and moving, some of the people would shout. And that was really strange, it was really different.
Sue Fields: My name is Sue Fields, and I was a member of Park Baptist before we merged to become Unity. People complained that they couldn't hear because of all the noise. And I think Open Door members thought it was too conservative. What a lot of people in the churches did not realize is that both churches gave up a lot.
For Unity members and clergy, working toward reconciliation not only means bridging racial divisions inside the church, but being a model and an agitator in the community. It means working with Cub Foods to hire people of color from the city instead of bussing workers in from the suburbs. It means asking the two former church's denominations, the progressive National Baptist Church which is black, and the American Baptist Church which is white, to work collaboratively in their dealings with Unity. It even means suggesting to news organizations that a white and black reporter work in tandem when doing a profile of the church. Pastor Johnson says the demands of being a member of a church of reconciliation are enormous.
Johnson: It changes their relationships with their friends, with their families, it means that people on the job are asked to talk about race. Going to a seminar, people ask them to say what their experiences are because they are supposed to be examples of reconciliation. So each person, just coming to that worship experience, it forced to become an ambassador of reconciliation the rest of their lives.
But after years of working on reconciliation, Unity members are just as aware of the rewards as they are of the sacrifices. Angela James.
James: We have a blended family. I think we are more conscious of how interconnected our lives are, and it has a unique effect on your relationship with people. Sometimes you seek out people you wouldn't normally seek out, you know? Those are some of its benefits, and it's not a guilt trip, it's not an all feel-good trip. It's just about you doing right, you living out the Gospel.
During the formation of Unity Baptist, several people left, disenchanted with the process and its desired outcome. Attendance each Sunday is small, with only 60 to 100 worshippers, but church leaders are working to draw more people into the fold. When asked when and how the congregation will know it is finally reconciled, Pastor Ron Smith replies they are people of faith on a journey, who don't know what the future holds, but are sure that God holds the future.