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."
Cameron-Kragt said that even though many of the church's members have moved away, his congregation didn't want to move away.
"We are trying to bring down the last barrier of segregation, and that is the church at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning," Cameron-Kragt said. "It wouldn't have been fair to close the doors of this church just because the neighborhood is African American. White churches face a dilemma: Either they will integrate or die. Integrating is the right thing to do."
Eric Redmond, the pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, said pulpits are integrating more frequently now.
"I am thankful that these congregations have been culturally sensitive to the changes in the community while choosing to remain in the community," Redmond said.
Redmond, who is black, presides over a church that is 90 percent African American. Not long ago, it was predominantly white, he said"[Some of] the non-African American members in the church have not left. They have chosen to be part of what God is doing."
The Rev. Kathy Hlatshwayo, the white pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Forestville, is also trying to diversify her congregation. At one time, more than 800 people were members of Bethany, but, Hlatshwayo said, church membership today has dwindled to about 160.
"In looking at the membership life of Bethany, the move has been away from the urban area to Calvert County, St. Mary's County and Charles County," Hlatshwayo said. "There are various reasons for this, but certainly, desegregation played a role."
About one-third of the people who are now part of Bethany are minorities. Moving out of the neighborhood is not an option.
"This is where God has planted us," said Hlatshwayo, who has brought in hip-hop-rapping preachers, hosted special programs and gone door to door to nearby apartment complexes to recruit young people for the church. Earlier this year, she brought in the Christian rapper Agape (David Scherer) to preach his musical message of racial diversity.
Hlatshwayo, 55, lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay area. She said moving to the East Coast after she was ordained in 1991 was a big racial culture shock.
"I didn't have to deal with the issue of segregation growing up in California," Hlatshwayo said.
Sandy Ferguson, coordinator of the United Methodist Church's local Commission on Religion and Race, said the church is committed to diversity.
"The denomination has committed millions of dollars to help the church be inclusive and what God has called us to be," Ferguson said. "We take this charge very seriously, and it is reflected in our memberships."
Smothers said: "If you look at my staff, it is very diverse. Our gospel choir is as diverse as you can get."
The next frontier, he said, is integrating neighborhoods and businesses: "Diversity is not only about being sensitive in culture, but about economics."
The Rev. Rodney Smothers preaches at First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville, one of the most culturally diverse congregations in the area.