September 11, 2009
Recession & Racial Integration
Weakened by the economy, African-American and white churches merge to survive.
A year or so ago, when gas prices were over $4 per gallon here in Chicagoland, something remarkable happened: people started driving the speed limit. Despite the threat of traffic tickets, commuters regularly speed by 20 miles per hour or more on our highways. But for that few months, people cruised at a modest and efficient 55. One of my colleagues put it this way: “What the law has been unable to do, high gas prices did overnight.”
I guess there are times when the promise of saving money gives us just the boost we need to do the right thing.
More recently, the current economic hard times have given a couple of churches in Louisville, Kentucky, a good excuse to do something they might not have done otherwise. St. Paul Missionary Baptist church, a predominantly African-American church, and the mostly white Shively Heights Baptist Church have merged.
Pastor Lincoln Bingham leads the lively and growing St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. The church’s youth and senior adult ministries were flourishing, and as a result, they were running out of space. The congregation needed a larger facility to expand their mission. But they didn’t have the money to expand or relocate.
Meanwhile Bingham’s good friend Mark Payton was shepherding the mostly white, and mostly aging, Shively Heights Baptist Church. The congregation had plenty of space—maybe too much. With all their empty seats, they were worried about their future. Their mostly aging, mostly white congregation was having a hard time attracting young members. They, too, were strapped with a tight budget and dwindling funds. So Bingham’s St. Paul church family moved into Shively Heights’ facility, and the two congregations now worship together.
The financial benefits weren’t the pastors’ only motivation for the merger. The men have been good friends for 25 years. Payton says his friend Lincoln has preached in every church he’s served as pastor. But when both of their churches fell on hard times, it seemed like a prime opportunity for the congregations to make a radical move.
Pastor Bingham insists, “We are doing it because we feel like it's what God would have us to do.”
Congregants seem to agree. “We was kind of dull around here,” says one older woman from Shively Heights. “We needed something to lift us up.” They have certainly gotten that. The pastors share preaching responsibilities and the churches’ worship teams have blended. The new St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights is a full and energetic place.
In that part of the United States, integrated worship is the exception, not the rule. But when an interviewer for NPR asked the pastors if they’ve met with any resistance, Pastor Payton said, “I think any time we try to do something for the glory of God you're going to have some resistance, but [we’ve had] very minimum resistance. All of my leadership from my Sunday school, from our active deacon body, all of them was 100 percent on board with this decision.” Pastor Bingham adds that they’ve received lots of positive feedback from area pastors, some of whom have suggested that they may follow suit and consider a similar merger in the future.
We’ve heard lots of talk in recent months about the hardships churches are facing amidst the current economic climate. Giving is down in places, because people have lost jobs. Churches have had to lay off staff and reduce programming. It would be easy to think of the recession primarily as curse for churches. But St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights makes me think it might be a blessing in disguise. Budget shortages force us to reconsider our priorities; a shortfall gives us a great excuse to kill unnecessary programs and other initiatives. In the case of these two churches, the tough times encouraged two pastors to see where God was at work across town and consider cooperation for the Kingdom’s sake.
A congregant from St. Paul’s put the matter succinctly: “It’s God’s will,” she said. “Because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have happened.” She added, with perspective that can encourage all of us in these hard times, “It lets me know God is moving.”