The Rev. George Cummings looked out over his congregation in the Laurel District of Oakland and saw white faces sitting next to black ones. Piedmonters sat next to Oaklanders.
One of the most intractable racial divides in America - the self-segregation of churches - was being bridged before his eyes.
"The God who calls us to be together, calls us to oneness," said Cummings, pastor of Imani Community Church.
"Amen," said someone in the crowd.
"We are not always there yet, but we are on our way," said Cummings, who is black.
"That's right," said another voice from the pews.
Cummings' church and Piedmont Community Church decided that they would come together as one people. They will worship together periodically. They've started to mix into each others' Bible studies. Their choirs sing together. Their children have gone on a mission trip together to Tijuana. On Sunday, May 3 and May 17, they had ceremonies affirming their covenant with each other.
Piedmont Community Church is predominantly white, as much as Imani is black. They are only 10 minutes apart by car, yet before this relationship began, neither pastor had been to the neighborhood of the other's church. All sides see bridging the divide as bearing fruit.
"We're in danger of being isolated up here in the hills," said the Rev. Bill McNabb, who is white and is pastor of Piedmont Community Church. "It's an enriching thing. As this relationship deepens, I think we'll find ways to mutually serve each other."
The connections began, in part, because of then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Planting the seed
Obama gave a speech on race in March 2008 that, in part, described the racial divides perpetuated by churches. He paraphrased the oft-repeated, half-century-old words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who described 11 a.m. on Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America.
The speech prompted McNabb to invite Cummings to come to Piedmont to talk about race at his church. And over dinners at each other's homes, the two began forging a relationship that they presented to their churches. Both said they've yet to hear of any opposition.
The visits to Piedmont have surprised Imani members and already challenged their assumptions, Cummings said. They knew that the 1.7-square-mile city of Piedmont was one of the wealthiest in America, an island of excellent schools and tony homes long set apart from Oakland.
"The people who grew up in Oakland, in particular, have been surprised by the openness of the Piedmont church family to be in relationship," said Cummings. "I think they have an idea, grown out of their own historical experience, that 'those' people didn't really want to know black people."
Some of the Piedmonters have been surprised by how different worship is in a black church.
"People just burst out and applaud," Kim Kellogg, 59, a white Piedmont resident and Piedmont Community Church member for 20 years, said of Imani. "Our church ... is a little quieter and a little more reserved."
On May 17, folks jumped to their feet, raised their hands in praise, and, during songs, swayed and clapped. There was an interpretative dance where Imani members danced up, down and across the aisles. All despite sweltering heat in a building with no air conditioning save for open windows and hand-held fans.
"The Imani family likes to have a lot of movement," Cummings said at the time from the pulpit. Pausing, he added: "It's almost like a workout."
Church people in all sorts of congregations regularly talk about being "brothers and sisters in Christ." But few practice it with race in mind. Mainline Protestant churches are 91 percent white, while historically black churches remain 92 percent black, according to extensive demographic surveys done by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Entire denominations - including the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - are more than 90 percent white.
"Jesus came to break down the barriers of people - gender, race and ethnicity," said McNabb. "And yet, over the years, we've re-created them. This is just an effort to make things how Jesus said things were supposed to be."
In some ways, it's not surprising that Imani and Piedmont found each other.
Piedmont Community Church has long had an extensive sense of mission to go beyond the city limits. In addition to the mission trips to Tijuana, a group of 30 congregants regularly tutors in Oakland schools. They have a sister church in Malawi, a southeast African nation. McNabb began his own journey toward a sister-church relationship two years ago, when he got tired of reading about violence in Oakland, realized he needed to do something and started attending meetings of black pastors.
Cummings, for his part, is the executive director of Oakland Community Organizations, a widely respected coalition of 40 congregations and community groups that works on issues ranging from immigration to housing to health care.
Jan Hunter, an Imani member, said doing the right thing sometimes means feeling uncomfortable. A few years ago, the Imani congregation christened the child of a lesbian couple. It was a first for many in the congregation.
"I don't know what we thought was going to happen," said Hunter, 54, who is black. "Everyone was happy. Lightning did not strike."
She said it was probably uncomfortable for some to worship with people they'd had prejudices about - in both directions. But, she said, "You have to start somewhere."
Source: San Francisco Chronicle