Nashville pastors swap pulpits to bridge racial divide
Jul. 08, 2018
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Christians tend to worship alongside people who look just like them.
That is the case for the two First Baptist churches in downtown Nashville — one mostly black and the other mostly white.
So when their pastors exchanged pulpits earlier this spring, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. and the Rev. Frank Lewis not only demonstrated their friendship, but they bridged the racial divide prevalent across the Christian landscape.
"What we are doing today matters. What we are doing matters in our city," Lewis said as he stood on his borrowed platform at the historically black First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.
"It matters when God's people join together across different kinds of boundaries that we've grown up in and we say, 'You know, it doesn't have to be this way,' " Lewis said in his sermon. "We're going to be together and we're going to lift high the name of Jesus."
About a half-dozen blocks away, Smith called it a "blessing" and a "privilege" to preach at Nashville First Baptist Church that April 22 morning before launching into his sermon on the treasure in jars of clay from 2 Corinthians.
The history of race and religion is long and complicated, says Baylor University professor Kevin D. Dougherty and North Park University professor Michael O. Emerson in their recent study, "The Changing Complexion of American Congregations."
In it, the sociology scholars point to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lamenting in 1956 about 11 a.m. on Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in Christian America.
"The troubled history of American race relations birthed congregations and denominations divided by race," reads the study published in June in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "Baptists and Methodists both fractured along racial lines to create separate black and white denominations."
In Nashville, the two First Baptist churches share a long history.
Nashville First Baptist allowed its black members, both slave and free, to hold monthly prayer meetings in the 1830s, according to church history. Eventually, they were able to hold separate services at another location.
At the end of the Civil War, the black congregation petitioned to become an independent church, which happened in 1865. The church would go on, under the leadership of Smith's father, to play a pivotal role during the civil rights movement, including sit-in demonstrations in Nashville.
"I think all of that combined just really knits a story together about the ongoing day-to-day work of racial reconciliation," Lewis said. "I think you have to constantly work on it. It's a long journey. Every generation is going to face new challenges to that."
Today, it is not uncommon for the two congregations to come together on occasion. In 2015, Lewis delivered a message during the 150th anniversary celebration of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. On April 22, a joint choir performance capped the day of the Smith and Lewis pulpit exchange.
"The hope is they see a genuine and a mutual friendship between the two pastors," Lewis said. "If we can be friends, then that friendship should extend member to member in our congregations as well."
It is easier to find common ground for special fellowship events like a pulpit exchange than on a week in and week out basis, Smith said.
"What we did on that Sunday is very important and very good," Smith said. "The people at Nashville First Baptist were very receptive of me and our people were very receptive of Dr. Lewis coming and sharing with us as well."
But worship is not a sterile experience, Smith said. Believers bring their personal perspectives — both historic and current-day — with them to church and many want to worship alongside those who understand and share their worldview, he said.
"It would be wonderful if we lived in a world, as sometimes said a colorblind world, where we can always worship and celebrate whatever's going on in the lives of people," Smith said. "We just don't live in that space right now."
In their research, Dougherty and Emerson found a notable increase in the percentage of multiracial congregations in the U.S. These congregations are defined as having less than 80 percent of its members with the same race or ethnicity. About 1 in 5 Americans worship with a multiracial congregation, they found.
At 12 percent in 2012, multiracial congregations have nearly doubled since 1998, the study says. Such congregations are more common among Protestants, including mainline, evangelical and black churches.
"The attention given to multiracial congregations over the past two decades provides resources for congregations to better serve diverse constituencies," the study says. "As U.S. society continues to diversify by race and ethnicity, the ability for organizations to adapt to changing demographics will only grow in importance."
Nearly 50 years ago, Belmont United Methodist Church opened its doors to an English as a second language program, said the Rev. Paul Purdue, senior pastor of the church. Ever since, it has brought people from all over the world across the church's threshold.
"It's a beautiful thing," said Purdue, who said a diverse group of pastors has shared the pulpit at the Belmont church.
More than 100 people attend Belmont's Golden Triangle Fellowship. It is a Sunday service held in the community center that serves many refugees and is translated into Thai and Karen, a language spoken in Myanmar. Belmont also helped start a Korean Methodist church years back and it has a current relationship with a Hispanic Methodist congregation, too.
On Pentecost Sunday, they worship together in three languages: English, Karen and Spanish. The English and Karen speaking congregations shared Communion on World Communion Day, too.
"I think it's just part of our fabric," Purdue said.
In April, the Sunday shared by the First Baptist congregations ended with an intention to come together again.
"This wasn't the first time our churches have done something like this, and it certainly will not be the last," Lewis said. "It's a good friendship between our congregations that continues to grow."
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com