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A Church on a Cultural Divide

Religion scholars say that a growing number of U.S. churches will experience similar conflicts. Christianity is growing in Asia and Africa faster than anywhere else in the world, and clergy leaders on those two continents have strongly opposed moves by U.S. churches to condone homosexuality and expand gay rights. During a stop in Fairfax County this fall, an Anglican prelate from Nigeria proposed establishing U.S. churches under his jurisdiction to minister to Anglicans upset by the American Episcopal Church's confirmation of an openly gay bishop.

"The churches need to be aware of the changes, and more aware of the way Christianity is moving in the world and the impact of immigration," said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor and author of "The Next Christendom," a study of the Third World's influence on Christianity. "These are stresses and strains that all denominations are facing. . . . They've got to live with the stress or die gracefully."

Sue Kaspar, center left, and her partner, Virginia Azuree, have remained as Silver Spring Presbyterian has largely become a church of African immigrants. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Silver Spring Presbyterian began in 1953 with a predominantly white congregation that called itself progressive. During the 1960s, the pastor marched in Selma, Ala., with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There was a special Sunday school class for disabled children. Gay couples and parents of gay children began attending, and in 1995, the church designated itself a More Light congregation, a movement in the Presbyterian Church USA that welcomes openly gay members and accepts gay clergy.

It was the church's attitude of inclusiveness that drew the first African members.

"It didn't even register to me that there weren't that many Africans there," said Evakise, a Beltsville social worker who started attending in 1984 after she came to the United States to study at Howard University. "I went there very focused on the pastor and the word."

Philip Ngundam, a Cameroonian immigrant who joined in 1986, said he was surprised to see that the head pastor at the time was a woman, but her warmth captivated him. He also loved the untraditional oval sanctuary, which allows parishioners to look at each other. "It just seemed like a good place to be," said Ngundam, a Bowie real estate agent.

Membership declined as white families left the area. By the mid-1980s, the church had just 200 members, compared with about 900 in the 1960s. But it began growing in the 1990s with the arrival of a large wave of African immigrants. The 2000 Census found nearly 100,000 African-born residents of the Washington region, more than in any other U.S. metropolitan area after New York.

By then, a majority of the congregation at Silver Spring Presbyterian was African, and tensions had surfaced on several fronts. Some white members complained that the newcomers, most of them from Cameroon and Ghana, were always late to Sunday service and didn't volunteer for committee assignments. The Africans didn't understand why the whites insisted that children be separated from their parents during worship. There was a predominantly white choir and an overwhelmingly African one, each with a different style of singing.

For many, the issue of gays became the breaking point. When the church organized a gay pride day in June 2002, few Africans showed up. Some never came back. Many gay members and their supporters also left, tired of the controversy.

But those who remain said the positive aspects of the congregation's diversity outweigh the split over homosexuality.

Bliss said he was furious when the visiting official from Cameroon considered leaving last year's ceremony because of his presence. And many other times, he said, he has felt like an outsider. But still, the church is his home. He counts several African immigrants as friends; many others hug him even though they may not fully embrace his sexuality.

"I am continuing to be caring and loving and all as God has gifted to me, and I will share that with whomever is open to me," said Bliss, 67, a retired social worker. "God will do the rest."

Stephen Andoseh, a Cameroonian who co-chairs a fundraising committee at the church, said he isn't convinced that homosexuality is a "natural thing." But the longtime white members, he said, provide leadership and financial support. In Cameroon, all churches are centrally controlled, so many immigrants are unfamiliar with their responsibilities in a congregation that is autonomous.

The non-African members "are the pillar, they are the cornerstone of the church," said Andoseh, 45. "The Cameroonian community has to learn what it takes to grow a church in the United States."

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