Pastors Swap Congregations To Fight Racism Religious leaders in one Maryland community have joined forces to ease racial tensions following a series of violent attacks. During the Lent season, two pastors — one white, one black — are swapping sermon duties at their racially homogeneous congregations to learn more about cultural differences.
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Pastors Swap Congregations To Fight Racism

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Pastors Swap Congregations To Fight Racism

Pastors Swap Congregations To Fight Racism

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TELL ME MORE: 10 churches, five black and five white, are involved in the project.

To hear how things are going we're joined by ministers Lucius Ross, who's black and Melvin Grover, who's white. Both were early members of the pastor exchange. When the project began, Melvin Grover was the pastor of Indian Head Methodist Church. Today he's Associate Pastor of Lexington Park United Methodist Church. Lucius Ross is the pastor of Smith Chapel and Alexandria United Methodist Church. Pastor Ross, Reverend Grover, welcome.

MELVIN GROVER: Thank you.

LUCIUS ROSS: Thank you for having us.

: Reverend Grover, I understand your congregation is mostly white and you were among the first two white ministers to actually join the 210-Corridor. So, what exactly are you trying to achieve through this program?

GROVER: I grew up in a neighborhood where I referred to myself as the salt in the pepper shaker. So I really didn't see any colors. I didn't know why we don't worship together to start with. And most of our congregants knew people in the neighborhood and why not come together on Sunday mornings or Lenten services, Wednesday evenings.

: That's very interesting because Reverend Ross yours was one of the first black churches to join this cause and as your colleague here mentions, Reverend Grover, you know, he wondered why people weren't sharing worship together already. But decades ago, Martin Luther King talked about Sunday morning being one of the most segregated hours in America at houses of worship across the country, so how different are Sundays now?

ROSS: Well, I would have to say that, for the most part, because of the structure of the denomination we are in, they are pretty much the same. But the difference is that the relationship that the black and white churches have with one another has changed dramatically.

: What do you mean? How so?

ROSS: In past times, both churches were pretty much isolated. Now, since we've instituted this Lenten season and the exchange in the pulpits, we now come together, not just in church, but in public places, wherever we see one another, we stop and embrace one another. We talk with one another. We even sit down and have lunch with one another. We do outreach things together, so even though the 11 o'clock hour may look the same on the outside, on the inside things have truly changed.

: You know segregation is still such a problem in the United States. You know, you talk about communities and neighborhoods - and especially in urban areas, in particular, you still see a lot of segregation going on. Is it odd or not, that we still talk about black churches and white churches, Reverend Ross?

ROSS: I think it's only odd because we are not open all of the time to new experiences. There comes a point in time when people have to be willing to accept risk, accept change. And a lot of times, we do things based on preconceived notions or ideas that have been implanted in us whether we have actually experienced them or not. And I think a lot of times that forms the basis for how we relate to other people. Once you have come out and been involved in the worship services, people can't wait to get back together again. They want to do things more than just during the Lenten season. They want to have more interaction. But I think, the old stereotypes, they die hard.

: Did you find, Reverend Grover, that the initial reaction was a little tepid at first or did people fully embrace this idea?

GROVER: Those that embraced it, embraced it fully and those that really wanted no part, wanted no part. The first year of these services - I think the actual first service was held at Smith Chapel - and my sister had died. And I was unable to attend, and I was really curious the next day of how many people from Indian had attended. And I got a phone call from one of the leaders, and she just started naming names. And Indian had, on a good day, had 30 on Sunday, and she named off 25 people that attended that Wednesday night service. And like Pastor Ross said, once they experienced the music they couldn't wait for the next Wednesday to go back to the music because they just loved the music.

They were allowed to stand and clap, and sing out loud where most of your Caucasian churches are rather stoic. And if you say Amen you get weird looks, and if you say hallelujah somebody might come up to you and say, what's the matter with you and they can say, I got religion and say, well you better leave because you didn't get it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: So it was a freeing experience.

GROVER: Yes it was. Very much so.

: Reverend Ross, talk to me just a little bit about the different styles. I was wondering about your congregants. What did they feel about this - they might have been used to the style that was going on that Pastor Grover's talking about.

ROSS: It's funny because sometimes they think I'm a little over the top maybe, but at other times I'm very serious and very deliberate about what I do. When they went into the service, they were somewhat guarded because they really didn't know first of all what to expect, and number two what would be expected of them. But after the music started to play and a warm welcome and greeting, and Reverend Grover here...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: He's laughing.

ROSS: ... he tells a few jokes and he cracks people up, people begin to relax. Then they realize okay, it's just like anything else, we're just a group of people coming together united to do something. And once that happened, as he said, Amen, if you wanted to sit there, if you shed a tear, if you pat your feet, clap your hands, whatever the spirit led them to do, they felt open and free and relaxed and comfortable with doing that.

: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley. I'm speaking with Pastor Lucius Ross and Reverend Melvin Grover about race and faith. You both talked about, you know, how your congregants, kind of, responded to the services. Do either of you change your preaching style at all when you're at these exchanges?

ROSS: I would have to say no. One of the things expressed between the Caucasian and the black community was that we just came in being ourselves. You have to either accept us or reject us for who we are. We're not going to play some games. We're not going to put up a front because people, especially when they come into the House of the Lord, are looking for truth. And they are looking for honesty, and that's what we gave them. And people embraced Pastor Grover's style. I think he even got a standing ovation one time at a church service he was doing. And people were open to my preaching style and the good part about it was that everybody knew that we truly cared about everybody.

: It sounds like you all have good camaraderie during these services. And I know that there are still churches, however, that will not participate. And I wanted to get your thoughts about why you thought that might be happening. Pastor Grover, why not begin with you?

GROVER: Well, I think there are some churches that don't participate just because of their schedules. And they are - some of the pastors - both of us are part time. And a lot of the churches over there are on the two-team quarter part time. And so other - they have other jobs to do, or they're going to school.

And it's hard to carve out anymore time during the Lenten services series because they have to get ready for Easter. And Easter is a hectic time. And just to carve another night out of the week is very difficult.

: Pastor Ross, do you have any thoughts about that?

ROSS: Well, I kind of share the same view that Melvin does. But I think initially there might have been some hesitation by some churches to participate. But the beauty in it is that those people who did participate, by word of mouth, began to go back and talk to their neighbors and share how great a time they were having.

And, you know, nobody ever asked, well, who's preaching? Is it a African- American? Is it a white pastor? Whose church is it going - nobody did that. They just went back and said, look, this is what happened when we Lenten services, and you really need to come.

And because the word of mouth kept going out so much and so strongly from the participants, people began to wonder, well, what's going on over there? Let's - maybe we have to go over there and check it out. They came, they got hooked and they continue to come.

: I just want to have one last question for you. I wanted to why this was being held during the season of Lent - Lent, of course, from Ash Wednesday through Easter. Why was that important to do it during this time period? Or was it just logistics?

ROSS: Well, and I think that was just the time that God moved on the heart of Reverend DeFord to come together with this idea. One of the things that happened, I think the first year that we did these joint services, I think the theme for the year was unity in the community. And maybe subconsciously or even unconsciously, that was the beginning of God bringing the communities together.

Lenten seemed to be the good time to do it because that's the time that most people look for spiritual renewal. That's the time when we really start to think about the suffering that Christ went through for us. And it kind of softens your hearts and humbles you. And you don't have so much pride about who you're, or where you're or what you do.

And it brings us all back down to the base level that we all were sinners and had it not been for Christ, where would we be? And I think that was the drawing point of it all.

: Reverend Grover, expect us to continue?

GROVER: I'm doing my best to sort of encourage it where I am now. And we just had a combined Ash Wednesday service with a sister church and it was fun. I got to do the sermon and I enjoy preaching, and I enjoy the freedom that - usually Wednesday night services afford more than Sunday services. And talk about sermons, I remember the one sermon about Queen Esther, that Pastor Ross preached and how wonderful it was.

And it was like, we modified our services every year, it seemed like. Because the first year I think most of our services lasted two-and-a-half to three hours.

ROSS: Three hours.

GROVER: Which for getting out at 10:00 at night on a school night was kind of tough. So one night, Pastor Ross was preaching, and he was preaching about the Queen Esther and nobody wanted him to stop, but - because it was like, Queen Esther was the only person who asked what the king wanted. Where all the other potential queens asked or - and took to the king what they wanted to take.

And you put that in a Christian perspective is that how many times do we ask what Jesus wants and don't take it to him? That we take to Jesus what we want to take to him. So this two-team quarter of thing is what Jesus wants. Jesus wants his children to worship together, no matter who they are, no matter what type of economic situation they're in and for sure not what color they are.

ROSS: Amen.

: Reverend Melvin Grover is the associate pastor at Lexington Park United Methodist Church in Lexington Park, Maryland. And Lucius Ross is the pastor of Smith Chapel in La Plata, Maryland and Alexandria United Methodist Church in Indian Head, Maryland. They joined me in our Washington studios. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us.

GROVER: Thank you for having us.

ROSS: Thank you so much for having us.

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