Diversity in Church Doesn't Come Without Problems

Jun 18, 2009

It’s been said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. And there’s research to back up the notion. For whatever reasons, different ethnicities tend to not worship together, no matter the religion. As part of our Project Milwaukee series on race relations, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis visits a local church where diversity is actually part of the appeal.

Two church members greet each other before service.

Central United Methodist Church sits on the corner of 25th and Wisconsin. The neighborhood is largely African American and plagued by poverty. Based on that location alone, it’s easy to assume this is your typical black church. But Central United Methodist is anything but typical, especially when it comes to diversity. At today’s service, there’s Black and White and everything in between.

“Our values are not tied to our skin color.”

That’s Pastor Kate Jones.

“Some people’s experiences may be tied to skin color, but values certainly aren’t,” Jones says.

During the service, you can’t help but hear different accents as people ask for prayer.

“Lord hear our prayers. Let us pray for those who are less fortunate. Lord hear our prayers.”

Pastor Jones says before coming to Central United Methodist two years ago, she presided over churches where the congregations, for the most part, looked like her: white. She says integration works here for one reason.

“I think it’s a very forward-thinking place where people are just thoughtful and faithful in terms of understanding that not everybody’s alike and that we can celebrate difference,” Jones says.

Paul Kinsley and Narsie Peterson can attest to the fact that everyone is accepted here. He’s white and she’s black and they’ve been married for more than 20 years. Peterson says they chose this church because of its diverse nature.

“I come from a huge family and all of my family go to an all black church and so I didn’t want to go to my family’s church. I knew what it was like and I wanted my husband to come with me and I wanted to find a church that we could both be comfortable in,” Peterson says.

Peterson says that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with congregations that are all black or all white. That’s just not what she and her husband wanted. However Kinsley is quick to point out that nothing is perfect and even people at Central United Methodist have their hang-ups.

“We’re all closet racists in some manner and so stuff like that comes out but we try to bring it out in the open and deal with it here,” Kinsley says.

A recent example of a racial flare up came about when those handing out communion were made to wear food service gloves for sanitary reasons. There were concerns about swine flu. The communion stewards were black and somehow word got started that they were asked to wear the gloves because some white members didn’t want to take communion from black people. Kinsley and Peterson say discussions about racial matters are trying but necessary. Kinsley’s wife Peterson says if such tensions are swept under the rug, they’ll eventually blow up.

“We work on it every day and we make sure the members of this church know that each one of them is loved by each one of us,” Peterson says.

At one point, the church went so far as to bring in a mediator, when racial tensions were high. Long-time members Owen Grisham and his wife say things are much better today. Owen says years ago, a church like this would not have been possible in Milwaukee.

“Years ago, the town was very prejudice. Seemed like we had our little thing over in the 6th Ward as they called it, that’s where most of the blacks lived. And they had a bridge called a viaduct going to the south side. We doesn’t go cause we had to fight all the time. But as the years went by everything begin to change,” Grisham says.

Girsham says he likes the diversity of the church and thinks of its members as family; yet he admits…

“Sometimes I embarrass myself getting mad looking at white people. But it’s not right. I don’t say it’s right but it’s just a thing like that,” Girsham says.

People have to remember that while values are color blind, they can’t erase hurts of the past, according to Pastor Kate Jones. She says at Central United Methodist, it’s about being open-minded and growing to understand history’s impact.