SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Most people go to church with people who look like them. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. described Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in Christian America. He called on churches to become more diverse - so far, not a lot of progress. Now two churches in Oakland, Calif., are trying to meet that challenge to integrate by becoming one congregation. Sandhya Dirks, of member station KQED, reports it's not easy.
SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: When Pastor Bernard Emerson met Pastor Kyle Brooks, they knew they were spiritual soulmates. For example, they liked to quote the same passages from the Bible.
BERNARD EMERSON: Jesus's prayer in John 17 was, father, make them one...
KYLE BROOKS: Father, make them one as you and I are one.
EMERSON: ....As you and I are one.
BROOKS: The point, in some ways, of the church is to be a display of God's love for the world. And we cannot do that effectively if we don't love each other.
DIRKS: Brooks says they both wondered how people could love each other - could be one - if they weren't in the same room.
BROOKS: The vast majority of people in the United States who go to church go to a church that is racially and ethnically homogenous.
DIRKS: According to a national congregation study, 8 out of 10 American churchgoers attend a congregation in which a single racial or ethnic group is in the vast majority. That was the case at both Brooks' and Emerson's small churches. For Pastor Emerson, it was extra true. A lot of his congregants or members of his extended family. His congregation called The Way was a black church in the American Baptist tradition. Brooks ran Oakland Communion, a church of mostly white newer residents. He comes from the Christian Reformed tradition. Emerson says, despite all their differences, the two pastors kept talking about their shared vision for an integrated church.
EMERSON: It was always the intent of our Lord that the church be multiethnic.
DIRKS: They kept kicking around the idea - until a year ago, when Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va. That was their sign that it was time. So first, they told their congregants.
LASONYA BROWN: I saw it on Facebook. And then instantly I typed back, oh, my God, this is exactly what I've been looking for. I'll be the first one to join.
DIRKS: That's LaSonya Brown. She was raised in the black church. At first, she thought they would just integrate overnight.
BROWN: It's much more complicated than that. You don't think that your life is different than somebody else because you tend to want to think that - what you guys have in common, not the differences. I know that's the way I think.
DIRKS: Brown says they did months of classes at each church - being really real about their fears. All that preparation, she says, was necessary.
BROWN: There's a lot of things that we don't do in common. You know, but we do want to know how to, you know, be together.
DIRKS: The music was different. Each congregation is learning a whole new set of hymns. And there were tensions over what kind of food to serve at coffee hour. Some of those interactions came off as rude. For a flash, Brown thought about going somewhere else. But she loves her church.
EMERSON: Welcome to Tapestry Church.
DIRKS: On a recent Sunday morning, around 25 people gather in a school cafeteria in East Oakland.
BROOKS: I believe in the Holy Spirit.
DIRKS: The pastors say they've retained most of their original congregants - though not everyone comes every Sunday. They're still a small church. Some new congregants are showing up now, looking for a place where they feel welcome.
DWIGHT DAVIS: We're gay people, you know. So it's nice to be able to come into the place and not feel like everybody's like, hmm, you're going to burn before me, you know? (Laughter).
DIRKS: Dwight Davis and his husband to Oakland 14 years ago. They wanted a racially diverse congregation. But Davis says it can feel awkward to just show up at a traditionally black church, especially when gentrification can make black Oaklanders feel threatened.
DAVIS: In these times, you know, you want to be sensitive to people's sanctuary. You know, I don't want to be that one person who interrupts somebody's sanctuary.
DIRKS: You can't just magically make it all better, says Pastor Kyle Brooks.
BROOKS: You're actually bringing people together who have deep and long and somewhat painful, traumatic histories with each other.
DIRKS: Building an intentionally diverse congregation means sacrificing comfort, says Pastor Bernard Emerson. That means sometimes putting relationships ahead of traditions.
EMERSON: We had to be better brothers to each other than we were pastors.
DIRKS: Both pastors say the way you integrate a church is one Sunday at a time. For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks in Oakland.
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