Saturday, June 23, 2012

Churches Of Christ Address Race Issues

Churches of Christ aim to mend longstanding racial divides
By Bob Smietana, USA TODAY

Whenever legendary civil rights lawyer Fred Gray comes to Nashville, Tenn., he drops by the intersection of 24th and Batavia.

That spot was once home to the Nashville Christian Institute, a K-12 school for African-American members of the Churches of Christ once banned from Lipscomb University and other Church of Christ schools.

Long closed, the school is never far from Gray's mind. The man who once represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. paid tribute to it during a recent ceremony at which he received an honorary doctorate from Lipscomb — an institution that he once sued over its racial policies.

His honorary doctorate was part of a new movement aimed at healing longstanding racial divides in the Churches of Christ.

"There have always been white congregations and black congregations, with little exchange between the two," said Wes Crawford, preaching minister at Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas.

While church and academic leaders tackle the issue from the top, two 30-something members of Churches of Christ in Nashville are building bridges at the grassroots level.

Brent High, a member of the predominantly white Brentwood Hills Church of Christ, and Micah Otis, a member of the predominantly black Scott Avenue Church of Christ, have organized a series of meetings between ministers at black and white congregations in Nashville.

Those meetings have led to ministers at several congregations swapping pulpits for a week and, in at least two cases, to churches holding joint worship services.

Otis said those meetings are just a start.

"We have still not gotten a conclusion on how to fix this," said Otis. "But that's the purpose of having the meetings."

Denominations divide

Most American Protestants divided over slavery around the time of the Civil War. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians all split into northern and southern denominations.

Those groups were often divided by race as well — with separate denominations for African-American Christians like the National Baptist Convention and African Methodist Episcopal churches.

By contrast, Churches of Christ leaders have claimed their fellowship never split.

That's not exactly true, Crawford said.

Churches of Christ say their group is not a denomination. Instead they call it a fellowship or brotherhood. So they don't have any denominational boards to officially split, said Crawford, who spoke at a session on race relations at the conference on reconciliation.

But the fellowship has long divided over racial lines.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was some interaction between black and white Churches of Christ, because of Nashville preacher Marshall Keeble.

The dynamic evangelist was one of few African-Americans welcomed at white Churches of Christ. He often convinced those congregations to donate funds to the Nashville Christian Institute — known to alumni as NCI — where he was president from 1942 to 1958.

Things changed in 1967, when the NCI board of directors closed the school amid dwindling enrollment and gave all its assets to Lipscomb.

Gray and other alumni sued, saying Lipscomb was hostile to African-Americans. They lost in court. But the case — and Keeble's death in 1968 — marked a further split between blacks and whites.

The two groups have grown apart ever since, said Tanya Smith Brice, a Baylor University professor who also spoke at the conference.

"We, as a body, have kept a friendly distance from each other," said Brice, who grew up in a Church of Christ. "We have parallel structures — one that is white and one that is African-American. We pretend as if we are one body, but we are not."

Randy Lowry, Lipscomb's president, said the school can't undo the past.

"All you can do is over and over again do what is right and hope that over time that you are not only making a different impression but you are having a different impact," said Lowry.

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