In 1953, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. started declaring from the pulpit that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.”
Sixty years later, it still is, said the Rev. Roger Gench, pastor of the District’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
In an effort to change that, choirs from Gench’s congregation, the city’s Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and Emory United Methodist will sing together at the Presbyterian church Jan. 20 as the nation celebrates the King holiday and President Obama’s second inauguration.
“The core of who we are is that we are a racially divided city,” said Gench, who leads a mostly white congregation.
Gench said he came to the District 10 years ago with high hopes of racial and social integration, but instead found “balkanization” among neighbors.
On Thursday, Gench met at the historic New York Avenue sanctuary with the Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon, and Ron Schwartz, Emory’s minister of music, to plan the celebration. The Mount Lebanon and Emory congregations are both predominantly black.
They also talked about race relations during their meeting at the church, which President Lincoln attended with his family days after his inauguration in 1861 and which has a draft of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encased in a glass vault in the church’s Lincoln Room. More than 100 years later, King spoke from the church’s pulpit, “warning about the consequences of the war in Vietnam,” according to a history of New York Avenue Presbyterian.
Although the District is the nation’s seat of political power and an African American is president, there is “an isolationist spirit” in the city that must be confronted, Edmonds said.
“You have the younger group not talking to the older group, whites not talking to the blacks, and church folks not talking to the non-church folk,” he said.
The Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory said any chance to bring races together is a good opportunity.
“We have to be very intentional about unifying the city,” he said. “D.C. is becoming very divided in many respects, of the haves and have-nots, and if we continue on the pace we are going, we run the risk” of a wider split.
Gench, Edmonds and Schwartz were trained as community organizers by the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group established decades ago by activist Saul Alinsky. Obama — and Hillary Rodham Clinton before him — are also among those who worked for the group. The three pastors also are longtime members of the Washington Interfaith Network.
Edmonds, the current president of the network, said the concert “is a kickoff for what we hope will be a year-long continuation on addressing poverty and racism in the District.”
“I believe Dr. King’s dream may be delayed or deferred, but people are coming together across racial lines,” he said.
Gench said his church has purchased 100 copies of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which examines the role of the two symbols in the lives and history of African Americans. Members of the three churches will read the book next month and then discuss it.
Schwartz said the goal of the concert’s music selection “is to show the greatest diversity in song selection, from spirituals to classical to anthems to gospel. Despite our differences, we should have that common love for one another to treat each other equally.”
The Rev. Linda Lader, a minister at New York Avenue Presbyterian, was hopeful that the goal could be achieved.
“People are very eager to engage in a meaningful way with people from across the city who have different perspectives,” she said. “This church was a staging area for the 1963 March on Washington, but we don’t have that much contemporary involvement. This is a way to build relationships.”
The service will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 20 at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1313 New York Ave. NW. Admission is free.