Diversifying the Pulpits and the Pews
'White Flight' Forces County Churches Into Difficult 'Stay or Relocate' Decisions
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page PG16
Articles of Faith: a continuing series of stories about religious life in Prince George's County.
The Rev. Rodney Smothers remembers, as a child, seeing other black children going to school and church with white children at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in Northeast Washington. He wondered, "When would it be my turn?"
"The Catholics were ahead of us in terms of worshipping cross-culturally. Not knowing any better, I thought that was just a Catholic experience," said Smothers, 49, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, a Hyattsville congregation that evolved from being one of the largest majority white congregations in the area to one of the most diverse.
Worshipping God remained a segregated experience long after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 that invalidated "separate but equal" public schools.
In Prince George's County, which had its own desegregation lawsuit in 1972, white flight followed in many neighborhoods. Many religious congregations also left the county to relocate elsewhere in the region. Some stayed, however, and have tried to become multiracial both in the congregation and in the pulpit.
"Some people left. We said, 'God bless you.' We said we are going to be what God wants us to be," said Donnalee Sanderson, 74, a longtime member of First United Methodist who is white and lives near the church in Hyattsville.
"This is my neighborhood church. I love the diversity. We have grown and changed as the community has grown and changed."
Smothers said the First United Methodist has 1,300 members from 37 countries. It offers a range of programs aimed at its multicultural congregation: Shalom School, an after-school program for youth to learn music and fine arts; the Community Place Cafe soup kitchen, a program operated by Community Ministry of Prince George's County that feeds lunch to the poor five times a week; and a choir that sings everything from African to native American songs to occasional jazz, gospel and hand bell selections.
"The church is once again becoming a central point in the life of the community," Smothers said. "What you see is where there is a multicultural church, there is a strong emphasis on responding to the pulse of the community's needs."
Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Camp Springs also has been looking for ways to grow in recent years after a long period of decline. This year, the Rev. Don Cameron-Kragt, 50, the church's white pastor, enlisted the Rev. John Crestwell, an African American, fresh out of the seminary.
"John showed up at the church as someone aspiring to be a minister who had gone to seminary," Cameron-Kragt said. "I got to know him and his dream of bringing Unitarian Universalist teachings to African Americans."
Crestwell, 34, was raised in Southeast Washington. He graduated from Wesley Theological Seminary in the District, but along the way he became interested in the doctrine of the Unitarian church.
"I initially thought that I was going to be a Methodist minister, but I was looking for a more open-minded theology," Crestwell said. "[Cameron-Kragt] and I put together a proposal for me to become a minister of outreach and, eventually, co-minister."
Crestwell said Cameron-Kragt obtained $60,000 from local and national church officials to support Crestwell. Crestwell's main mission: putting together an aggressive campaign to bring more African Americans into the Unitarian church."One of our strongest principles is that we believe in the inherency, worth and dignity of every person," Crestwell said. "Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. People claim to be followers of Jesus, but are they willing to live out in practice what Jesus did? He dealt with people from all walks of life."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company