How A Once-White Church Broke Down Racial Barriers

Aug 30, 2015
Originally published on August 30, 2015 2:30 pm

A white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man on a Sunday last month in Cincinnati.

The campus police officer was charged with murder for fatally shooting Samuel Debose after pulling him over for a missing license plate.

By now we know the string of other similar events that have brought deep-seated racial tensions to the surface.

Cincinnati has been confronting its own racial divisions for a long time. In 2001, an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a white police officer, launching days of riots.

Cincinnati spent years recovering — police reforms, economic revitalization — and for some residents, a new spiritual focus.

This week on For the Record: Changing a church. Click the audio link on this page to hear the full story.

'What's this reconciliation ... ?'

Fifteen years ago, Peoples Church in Cincinnati was called First Christian Assembly of God and was 98 percent white. After the riots of 2001, Pastor Chris Beard decided to take the church in a new direction. He drafted a mission statement and said the church would focus on racial reconciliation.

Ed Weithe, who is white, has attended Peoples Church for more than 20 years.

"I know pastor Chris felt like he had a vision from God for our church to become a church like heaven," Weithe says. "When he mentioned the word 'reconciliation,' it's like, we really didn't have any need for reconciliation with the body of believers that we had, because we were all white, all probably middle-to-upper class incomes, and we're thinking, 'What's this reconciliation all about?' "

Beard diversified the staff; he expanded the music to reflect many cultures; he asked his congregation to take a series of classes designed to help break down racial barriers.

Weithe remembers one class assignment: Go out into the world and make a friend who is different from you. Weithe read a news story about the local NAACP president.

Weithe gave him a call and invited him to breakfast.

"I told him that I'm reaching out to you as a white man to a black man, because I no longer want to sit on the sidelines and be part of the problem, I want to be part of the cure," he says. "We eat breakfast once every six weeks, and we've been doing that for almost 10 years now."

'This Is What It's Supposed To Feel Like'

Carole Patton, who is black, began attending Peoples Church not long after Beard began his efforts to diversify. It was uncomfortable, Patton says, but she became committed to Beard's vision.

At times she wished to be back in a black church. She felt it after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Michael Brown in Ferguson. But after nine parishioners were shot down in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina in June, Patton says she finally felt at home.

"Everybody was heartbroken over it," Patton says. "You know, it was like, wow, OK, this is what it's supposed to feel like ... when you can put yourself in my shoes and you can feel my pain. Yeah, it was different. It was wonderful and I felt like, what growth. What growth."

Today, Peoples Church is about 25 percent African American, 25 percent international and 50 percent white. Beard says the process has been a personal challenge.

"I've had sinful thoughts, racist thoughts in my own heart that I've had to come to terms with," he says. "The reality is we're human beings and our brains are wired to categorize. The more conscious we are of our implicit biases, the more healing we can be in our relationships."

My Takeaways

First, I was surprised at how open Beard was about his own biases. During our interview he called himself "a recovering racist." He talked about how his grandfather was an evangelical preacher who used the N-word, and said he had to come to terms with how that shaped his own opinions about African Americans. He was willing to be brutally honest and expects the same from his congregation.

I also appreciated Weithe's honesty. A long-time member of the church, a white man in his 60s, Weithe called up the young black man who at the time had just become the president of the local NAACP and asked him to go to breakfast — which is kind of crazy. Can you imagine a white stranger calling a young, black man and saying, "Hey, let's be friends!" But it actually happened. They've been having breakfast together for more than a decade. And Weithe became a member of the NAACP.

Another thing that struck me was that Patton said had a hard time convincing her friends and family that it was a good idea to go to a white church to try to help it change. While her husband has come around and thinks what she's helping create at Peoples Church is good, he won't attend and has stayed at a predominantly black church. That's OK with Patton: She believes she is fulfilling a bigger mission.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And this is For the Record. It happened on a Sunday this past July in Cincinnati, Ohio - a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ray Tensing is accused of murdering the driver, Samuel DuBose, when he was pulled over near the University of Cincinnati campus on July 19.

MARTIN: By now, we know the string of other similar events that have brought deep-seated racial tensions to the surface. Cincinnati has been confronting its own racial divisions for a long time. In 2001, an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a white police officer, launching days of riots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mostly young crowds were on the streets for a second time in 12 hours today, protesting the latest shooting death of a black man by police.

MARTIN: Cincinnati spent years recovering, police reforms, economic revitalization and for some residents a new spiritual focus. For The Record today, changing a church.

CHRIS BEARD: My name is Chris Beard, and I pastor a church called Peoples Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

MARTIN: Peoples Church used to be called First Christian Assembly of God, and about 15 years ago, it was 98 percent white. After the riots in 2001, Chris Beard decided to take his church in a different direction. He drafted a mission statement and said the church would focus on racial reconciliation.

BEARD: There was a mix of excitement and a sense of vision but with trepidation and concern. Is this going to work? We didn't have a lot of examples to look to in the early 2000s.

ED WEITHE: I know Pastor Chris felt like he had a vision from God for our church to become a church-like heaven.

MARTIN: This is Ed Weithe. He's 65 years old. He is white. And he's been going to this church for more than 20 years.

WEITHE: And when he mentioned the word reconciliation, you know, it's kind of like we didn't really have any need for reconciliation with the body of believers that we had because we were all white, all probably middle to upper-class incomes. And we're thinking, what's this reconciliation all about?

MARTIN: Fast forward a couple of years and a black woman named Carole Patton was looking for a new church. One Sunday morning, she spontaneously decided to check out People's Church. She walked in...

CAROLE PATTON: ... And I noticed that none of them looked anything like me.

MARTIN: For a split second, she thought she might just turn around, but she didn't.

PATTON: My grandmother raised me and it would've been impolite to walk away.

MARTIN: Carole Patton wasn't sure why she needed a new church. All she knew was that God had called her to move somewhere else.

PATTON: I never thought I would be someplace when the minister came up to the podium, that he would be white with blue eyes. I really thought, you have really got an awesome sense of humor, Lord, because I don't know if I can do this. But the choir was not up there when I came in. I always have the feeling, if they had been there and had been singing, I might not have come back.

MARTIN: But she did come back and the music did change.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) I want to jump higher than I did before.

MARTIN: Now, we should talk about the music because to a lot of churchgoers, it is a big deal. Ed Weithe noticed the difference right away.

WEITHE: Well, it became a little bit more upbeat, it became a little more cross-cultural.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) I want to sing a little louder than before.

MARTIN: It wasn't just the music that was changing, though. Pastor Beard diversified his staff. And in 2007, he asked his congregation to take a series of classes designed to help break down racial barriers. Ed Weithe remembers one class assignment - go out into the world and make a friend who is different from you.

WEITHE: I went home and I read The Cincinnati Inquirer that morning. One of the headlines in the paper was about the local NAACP president, and he seemed radical to me. He was younger. He was black. I thought, well, you can't get any more different than the two of us (laughter).

MARTIN: Ed gave him a call and invited him to breakfast.

WEITHE: I basically told him that I'm reaching out to you as a white man to a black man because I no longer want to sit on the sidelines and be part of the problem. I want to be part of the cure. And we eat breakfast once every six weeks, and we've been doing that for almost 10 years now.

MARTIN: Not everyone was as inspired by the church's new direction, and people started leaving. Here's Pastor Beard.

BEARD: A little over 60 percent of the church that was here in 2000 is not here today.

MARTIN: Was that hard to see people leave?

BEARD: It's really hard, especially when some of your own personal friends are leaving and you just feel that pain of loss and separation.

MARTIN: At the same time, the handful black members at Peoples Church, including Carole Patton, were feeling marginalized by other members.

PATTON: They didn't know what to say or how to speak or rather than have eye contact, walking through the hall, you would start looking for something in your purse - or they would. And when I say they, I mean the white people.

MARTIN: Ed Weithe says some of the white members were pretty open about their reasons for leaving.

WEITHE: I wanted hymns on Sunday and we haven't had those in weeks. There were others who just flat out would not accept the fact that we were promoting and asking for people of other races to join us. We were a good church, a wonderful church, and why are we going this direction?

MARTIN: Those who did stay behind, like Ed and Carole, were committing to growing and diversifying the church. But Carole's friends and family didn't really understand.

PATTON: What I would hear was, you left the black church and you went to the white church. And it was as if I had deserted them.

MARTIN: And there were times, especially in the past few years, when she has wanted to be back in a black church. She felt it after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson. But after nine parishioners were shot down in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina this past June, Carole Patton says she finally felt at home.

PATTON: Everybody was heartbroken over it. You know, it was like, wow, OK, this is what it's supposed to feel like. This is what it's supposed to feel like, when you can put yourself in my shoes and you can feel my pain. And, yeah, it was different. It was wonderful. And I felt like, what growth, what growth.

MARTIN: Today, Peoples Church is about 25 percent African-American, 25 percent international and 50 percent white. Pastor Chris Beard says this whole process has been and continues to be very personal.

BEARD: I've had to face the history of a grandfather, who was an evangelical and Pentecostal preacher. I loved him dearly. But who used the N-word. And to realize that's part of my family history and to own that and to be at peace owning the sins of my fathers and to not be defensive about that. And to not try to put it off and say, oh, that wasn't me. And I've have had sinful thoughts - racist thoughts in my own heart that I've had to come to terms with. The reality is we're human beings and our brains are wired to categorize. The more conscious we are of our implicit biases, the more healing we can be in our relationships.

MARTIN: For The Record this Sunday morning, that was pastor Chris Beard, Ed Weithe and Carole Patton of Peoples Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.