Black and White Churches Merge in Louisville

Pastor Lincoln Bingham's predominantly black church – St. Paul Missionary Baptist — was bursting at the seams. And Pastor Mark Payton's mostly white church — Shively Heights Baptist — was worried about its longtime viability because of an older congregation. So the two pastors did something few black and white churches have ever done: merge. Pastors Payton and Bingham talk about their newly unified congregation and their first integrated Sunday service.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is back next week.

Coming up, a little photoshopping can be a bad thing. A Microsoft ad featured a white man's head with a black man's hand. Oops. The guys in the Barber Shop have their say on that and other news of the week.

But first, Faith Matters. It's our weekly conversation exploring religion and spirituality. Today, a story about how two Southern Baptist churches in Louisville, Kentucky, became one. Shively Heights Baptist is all white. Saint Paul Missionary Baptist is predominantly African-American. One wanted to save money, both wanted to expand their mission. So they did something pretty unusual. They merged.

Reverend MARK PAYTON (Shively Heights Baptist Church): We do want to welcome you to the historic first service of Saint Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUDDEN: That's Pastor Mark Payton speaking to his newly integrated congregation this past Sunday. Payton and his co-pastor Lincoln Bingham join us now from member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to both of you.

Rev. PAYTON: Thank you for having us.

Reverend LINCOLN BINGHAM (Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church): We're happy to be here.

LUDDEN: Pastor Payton, first what did you say on Sunday as you stood before the new congregation?

Rev. PAYTON: Well, I was overwhelmed in that I was really standing there in that setting. But, of course, we welcome them to the first service. And at one point, I made mention of just two or three blocks from the church setting back in '54, there was a bombing of a black gentleman's house. And now 55 years from that, here we are worshiping together.

LUDDEN: That is really profound. Pastor Bingham, what were you thinking and what did you tell the people?

Rev. BINGHAM: Well, I'm glad I wasn't there in 55 years ago, but I really am grateful for what has happened. I thought it was really amazing. We came together, it was a celebration. We saw no negativity in any parts of the worship or the Bible study - and the food and fellowship, it was just great.

LUDDEN: Now I gather that you both have known each other for a long time. So can you tell me how did this idea to merge come about?

Rev. PAYTON: Well, I have met Lincoln about 25 years ago when I was just a young pastor and my first pastor and I invited him to preach revival. And ever since then, we just been working together. He has preached in every church that I have pastored.

And back in February, I called him about a situation. And we just begin to talk about the state of our churches. And we just decided on the phone, we're going to try to put this thing together and merge, and it would help us out in giving us younger energy along with some indebtedness that we had and it would help them out and give them space.

LUDDEN: Were you facing a possible end of the church if you didn't find some solution like this?

Rev. PAYTON: Well, that was possible. We was not behind in any debts or so forth. We were just looking to the future.

LUDDEN: And Pastor Bingham, did you think maybe you're getting the short end of the deal here, just helping someone else's financial troubles? What was in it for you?

Rev. BINGHAM: No. We were limited in space for the kind of youth ministers and senior adult ministries because it - our concern was just continuing to reach more people. We were at capacity and hired even new staff to do greater ministries. But we needed a facility that could help facilitate that.

LUDDEN: Pastor Bingham, can I ask how did you go about telling your congregation about the merger?

Rev. BINGHAM: After I had felt that we should do that, I wrote a letter to every congregant, every member to tell them that that was a consideration. And then, of course, we had a meeting later on of a vote and that was about after three months of actually doing all these other research in this kind of thing. And then we had a two-thirds majority vote positive for that. And some of them that have already voted did not vote positive have simply gone back to churches where they were already comfortable before they came to us in the first place. So that's how we went about it.

LUDDEN: Now I'd like to ask you both about the issue of race. I mean, we have the country's first black president. Race has become, you know, a current topic of debate in many places. Is it something that you see yourselves addressing from the pulpit now? First, Pastor Payton?

Rev. PAYTON: No, and mainly because I just don't look at it that way. The problem with America isn't because of race. The problem with America is because we are sinners and has nothing to do with skin color. It just has do with the fact that we have a world that's lost without Christ that needs to know him as savior. And so I don't - I just don't look at that being an issue from the pulpit.

LUDDEN: Pastor Bingham?

Rev. BINGHAM: No, I really don't want to address that issue from the pulpit. I just want to talk about the love of God, the moral integrity that should be demonstrated in the life of all believers. We'll be judged by how we relate to one another, when we are judged by God. And we're being judged by that way right now.

So I don't intend to address it from the pulpit. But in teaching, yes, I will address that in teaching because the subject matter will automatically lead to the discussion of something that are considered racial issues.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with two Louisville pastors: Lincoln Bingham and Mark Payton about their newly-merged and now racially-integrated church.

Okay, so Pastor Bingham, your African-American church is now moved in to the larger bigger facilities of the white congregation. Now what about -you've already mentioned you all had a big party with lot of food. And I'm thinking about all the church socials - how are they going to change?

Rev. PAYTON: Not at all.

Rev. BINGHAM: Not at all. Everybody likes to eat in a Baptist, for sure, I promise you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BINGHAM: And if anybody was praising this, I would have in Sunday, we had about 600 people. I'm pretty sure (unintelligible) we feed 600. I told him it kind of remind me of the parable in the Bible, where Jesus fed 5,000. We didn't 5,000 but we sure have 500.

Rev. PAYTON: And I tease everybody. My leather belt around my gut is just a leather fence around a chicken graveyard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Okay, what about some stylistic things here. A lot of black churches are known to be more charismatic, a little more lively, maybe have a different, you know, hymnal. Do your churches have different styles and is that going to be an issue?

Rev. PAYTON: There is different styles, but not that much different. And I think that's one thing that is going to surprise a lot of people. Our churches had a blended service, which uses the hymnal along with some contemporary, some praise music. I'm used to those amens. I'm used to people raising their hands. And so, I don't think there's going to be a lot of difference in that style.

Rev. BINGHAM: He'll probably have more vocal response. And I'll probably have less. We know how to blend and, of course, our church (unintelligible) the rock and roll style. Like I said, I work with black and white churches. I guess I have the best of both worlds. I have already blended my style, blended our worship style in our churches to a great degree. So, we don't have to stretch that much to accommodate a gathering.

Rev. PAYTON: And the preaching, you know, Lincoln is more stationary, where I'm more mobile. And…

LUDDEN: Well, there you go. So much for stereotypes.

Rev. PAYTON: …yet we have the same message.

Rev. BINGHAM: And after - I wonder where in the pulpit I might get lost…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. BINGHAM: …to get back or something. So…

LUDDEN: You know, if you look at history, this merger is a big deal. I mean in the 19th century the Baptist Church actually split over the issue of slavery and you had Southern Baptists saying God intended for the races to be separate. Pastor Payton, your white congregation, you've mentioned a lot of them are older. I can only imagine they were living during the time of Jim Crow, some of them.

Rev. PAYTON: Oh, yes, there's no doubt.

LUDDEN: Pretty profound change here. Have you had any resistance?

Rev. PAYTON: Well, I think any time we try to do something for the glory of God you're going to have some resistance, but 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.

LUDDEN: But I understand that you did have some members leave.

Rev. PAYTON: Yes, we did. And they will have to answer for whatever reason, I can't look into the motive or their heart and say why. But we've gained a whole lot more than we've lost.

LUDDEN: Have you all had reaction from any of the other churches or pastors in town?

Rev. BINGHAM: I've had all kinds of congratulations from other pastors -both black and white - to congratulate this. Because one of the thing that we try to do, we're not trying to necessarily intentionally tell people to model what we're doing.

You know, we are doing it because we feel like it's what God would have us to do. And if it does become a model, that's wonderful. But if it doesn't, that was not our goal in anyway. Our goal was obedience to the Bible that we preach. Okay, even Jesus prayer was that we might be one if he and the father are one. That the world may believe that he was sent by the father. So we will be in the word of the God that we preach, which I think will be very hypocritical of we say one thing and don't do it.

LUDDEN: So you did look to the Bible for some guidance here on the merger and what it means?

Rev. BINGHAM: By all means. I mean, as I said, I mean, all throughout the Bible, you know, First Corinthians 5:17, if you're in Christ, you're a new creature, you don't think like you used to think, and (Unintelligible) from heaven to make everybody attempt to live by the Sermon on the Mount, by the great commission that would be given to us.

Rev. PAYTON: Corinthians reminds us that we have been reconciled to God, and we hope to be ministers of reconciliation, and that includes all nations of people, and so - and I think that's a unique thing about us coming together, is we are saying this is a church that welcomes all nations of people.

We've already heard this morning from somebody that talked about being biracial, and they said I have a church that I can now go to.

Rev. BINGHAM: And I have someone in our church that has just recently joined our church before moving there that is biracial, but if you looked at her blonde hair and her white face, you'd think she was white, and she said how she thanks God that she got here in time to get in on this.

So I think a lot of people are going to find a place for greater comfort than they ever had in the past.

LUDDEN: Pastors Lincoln Bingham and Mark Payton. They recently merged their two churches. One was mostly white, the other mostly black. They've created a new integrated place of worship, St. Paul Baptist Church at Shively Heights in Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks so much for joining us.

Rev. BINGHAM: Thank you.

Rev. PAYTON: Oh, our pleasure.

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