A Racial Convergence, via Religion Two once-vibrant Lutheran churches — one white, one black — fell on hard times in Evansville, Ind. Church staff are now experimenting with joint services and activities. There's even talk of a merger.
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A Racial Convergence, via Religion

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A Racial Convergence, via Religion

A Racial Convergence, via Religion

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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NPR's weeklong series Crossing the Divide continues now with two of the most divisive issues in America: religion and race. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 11:00 o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America. Today, two churches in Evansville, Indiana - one white, one black -are trying to change that. They are worshipping together.

Andrew Yeager of member station WNIN reports.

ANDREW YEAGER: It's Sunday morning and members of the predominantly white Peace Lutheran Church are chatting and joking under the wooden ceiling that stretches towards a skylight above the sanctuary. Services are about to begin.

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YEAGER: The organ begins playing Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" and 12 choir members line up on the steps leading to the altar.

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YEAGER: They sway, clap and make sounds not typically associated with white Lutherans.

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YEAGER: The choir is actually that of Grace Lutheran Church, a predominantly African-American congregation about three miles away, and five white and seven black choir members mirrored the journey these churches are on. Matt Kinear(ph) is a third generation member of Peace Lutheran - tall and thin and 20-something. He's one of the few youthful members of that church. He says after a well-liked pastor left the church, attendance dwindle. Grace Lutheran also saw pastors come and go and suffered declining membership.

Services continued at Peace Lutheran with a visiting pastor, who just happened to be a member of the predominantly black Grace Church across town. Matt Kinear says that sparked the idea that the two churches come together, so last summer they held a joint worship service. It was a success.

Mr. MATT KINEAR (Member, Peace Lutheran Church): So we planned another worship service together about a month later. And it was another success. And so the two councils met. And we decided to start worshipping together on a full-time basis.

YEAGER: Pastor Dave Daubert is with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He says many church mergers occur because of declining numbers, but that doesn't mean they work. He compares the successful merger to dating before marriage.

Pastor DAVE DAUBERT (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America): We begin to acquaint one another to talk about why we're doing this, what is the outcome that we're looking for, what kind of vision do we have, what kind of shared values do we have, what kind of new values or vision do we need to have in place for this new thing, which won't be just a larger version of either old thing, but it will be a new thing.

YEAGER: And with any relationship, there are the inevitable conflicts.

Mr. PHILIP LAWRENCE(ph) (Member, Grace Lutheran Church): Oh, God, yeah, you can't merge and there not be contention.

YEAGER: Philip Lawrence is a member of the church council of the mostly black Grace Lutheran. Today, he is sitting in Peace's basement, as members move between the two rows of chairs and tables. They munch on brownies, cookies and fruit, and drink their coffee. He says issues include the fact Peace Lutheran has been renting out this building to another church group to help make ends meet.

Mr. LAWRENCE: We came without any of that real knowledge. We didn't know that they were here to the extent that they were here. We thought that they were just here on Sundays and quietly went home. And that's not the case.

YEAGER: Layered on all this is the issue of race. It's Grace's pastor, Tim Lindstrom(ph), who will be leading the merged church. He says racial sensitivity training has been planned and says that there have been racial tensions with some outside the churches, but not from within. One person who finds the whole issue of race a bit funny is Robert Kerney(ph). He's been a member of both churches over the years. He's also blind.

Mr. ROBERT KERNEY (Member of Grace Lutheran and Peace Lutheran Churches): This is a African-American congregation. This is a white congregation. This is a blind guy, you know. They all kind of meld together, the same way that an American society does, so why people make a big deal does seem a little different to me.

YEAGER: Church leaders aim to formally merge sometime in the spring. They acknowledge bumps in the road. But like most congregants, they're optimistic about the result, which would be something of an anomaly in Christian America: a grassroots, multiracial, Lutheran church.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager in Evansville, Indiana.

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