While segregated churches remain the norm, efforts made to effect change

The joint congregations from Circular Congregational Church and Charity Missionary Baptist Church worship together in song as they celebrate MLK Day on Jan. 19 at the Circular Church.

Three times now these two church congregations, one white and one black, have come together. Their religious traditions and worship styles are very different. Their backgrounds and experiences, too, overlap little.

One church, Circular Congregational, is a bastion of white, liberal Christianity in Charleston’s historic district. The other, Charity Missionary Baptist, is on Montague Avenue in the heart of the poor Liberty Hill neighborhood founded by freed slaves in 1871.

While their congregations agree on much, especially matters of social justice, their Sunday services, like most across the state, remain largely separated by race.

Since the Civil War’s end, black and white churchgoers mostly have chosen to worship apart. The old refrain remains true: 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week.

Yet, even as the question of diversity is debated throughout the community, many say that integrating the pews isn’t a big concern.

“People are probably pretty much comfortable where they are,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, presiding elder of the 33 churches in the AME Church’s Beaufort District, which includes Charleston. “It’s not a burning issue in the black church, but it’s important to find ways where we can intersect.”

In the Charleston area, where so many houses of worship are steeped in a history and culture defined in part by racial divisions, it’s no wonder there are so few integrated congregations.

Even within denominations — Catholics and Presbyterians, for example — blacks and whites tend to worship separately. The picturesque James Island Presbyterian Church, predominantly white, sits on the corner of Fort Johnson and Folly roads. Five short blocks away is St. James Presbyterian Church, which black worshippers established after the Civil War.

Downtown, the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is mostly white. Less than a mile up the peninsula is St. Patrick’s, a predominantly black Catholic church. The pattern repeats among Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals and others. Perhaps that is why the joint services of Charity and Circular captured the imagination of worshippers.

Circular is part of the United Church of Christ, an inclusive denomination whose first members often were vocal abolitionists. It was established in 1681 by a group of dissenters. Charity, which traces its origins to the early 1900s, is a growing church whose members regularly mix an ardent faith with political engagement.

They are both among about two dozen diverse local churches involved in the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, and their pastors, the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge and the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, have worked closely together on social issues.

The two congregations first got together last fall when Rutledge was invited to preach at the black church. They got together again for a special screening of the movie “Selma,” followed by a large group discussion. They convened once more, last month, at Circular on Martin Luther King Day to worship together and acknowledge common social and political concerns.

The combined services, and the large-scale social justice initiative that area churches, synagogues and mosques are involved in, are exceptions to the rule.

In his remarks during the MLK service, Rutledge spoke of white privilege, ongoing de facto segregation and voter suppression.

“There is no salve in silence,” he said. “As people of faith, we must name the harms that have been done.”

Rivers carried the sentiment further.

“Leadership at its best will do what is right until it becomes popular; it will not do what is popular if it’s not right,” he said.

The worshippers, white and black, young and old, were comfortable together in this old sanctuary. There was nothing forced or prescribed about the combination, no reluctance or resentment. This was evident during the reception after the service when members of the two congregations mingled, chatting and smiling and embracing one another.

But this scene is hardly the norm. Most of the faithful in the Charleston area worship among their own, seeking comfort and empowerment in familiar rituals and practices.

One exception is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1862 mostly by members of the urban black middle class. Today, the small congregation is about 70 percent black, according to vestry member Minerva King.

“We’re in flux,” she said. White parishioners began to trickle into the church at Thomas and Warren streets 20 years ago, but the last five years have seen “more inflow.”

The integration is welcome, but it can cause some tension, King said.

“People who encouraged white worshippers to join didn’t always know the history of the church and black culture,” she said. And when two cultures mix, it’s usually the dominant one that takes over. “All people should be able to retain their identity without fear of ideological colonization,” King said.

For many decades, St. Mark’s was a pillar of the downtown black community, along with Links, Jack and Jill of America and Delta Sigma Theta, all black institutions that promoted leadership and advancement, and provided essential support and community cohesion, especially during the era of segregation, King said. While the organizations have remained active in recent decades, the cohesion has eroded, though new opportunities for community-building have presented themselves.

“I welcome everybody into that church,” King said. “But please don’t come with the idea, ‘Now that I’m here, let’s get the party started.’”

In the South, black churches grew out of the Civil War to become engines of the civil rights movement and safe havens where black worshipers could find refuge from a hostile world.

Before the Civil War, many Christian denominations included both whites and blacks but relegated slaves to the balcony and freed blacks to the last rows of pews. After the war, blacks often chose, or were encouraged, to leave and form their own churches.

Many seized the opportunity. In their own worship spaces, they developed their own expressions of faith and freely discussed issues of concern.

In his book about Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, historian Paul Porwoll writes about the spirituality of slaves and their owners. He describes life before the Civil War, when slaves sat in segregated seats and heard that the Bible condoned slavery.

But after the war, all that was gone. The majority black residents suddenly could decide with whom to worship. What ensued, according to Porwoll, was a “black exodus of biblical proportions.”

“African Americans now embraced segregation in their worship experience; it meant freedom from white interference,” Porwoll writes.

New denominations sprung up, in the South and North, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which claimed almost 44,000 black members across South Carolina by the end of Reconstruction. The AME Zion Church counted 46,000 members by 1890. And the Northern Methodist Church had 36,000 members by 1881.

In their own space, black churches embraced their own worship style, one filled with the praise, dancing and mysticism that more than a century later still contrasts with the more solemn tone found at many white churches.

“Freed slaves wanted to exercise their freedom in every way they could,” Porwoll writes, “putting as much distance as possible from every aspect of their prior lives.”

On Christmas day, the lone black member of First (Scots) Presbyterian died, leaving its pews filled only with white faces. The Rev. Danny Massie, its Mississippi-born pastor, spoke to members a few weeks later about the need for diversity.

“My hope for our church is that we can become much more diverse than we are,” he said later.

But he recognized that choosing a church often comes down to preferences for familiar worship styles and common life experiences. And that often results in worshiping apart.

Southern black churches, which often have a more exuberant call-and-response style of worship, can feel very different from a relatively sedate liturgical Presbyterian church, for example.

Darby, former pastor of Morris Brown AME, recalls preaching at Circular and toning down his sermons and adopting a more conversational style.

And Massie recalled preaching at Morris Brown and feeling the excitement of a congregation that responded vocally to his message.

“It’s not a bad thing if we can participate in things ecumenically,” Massie said. “It becomes a bad thing if it becomes exclusionary. The challenge is to reach out into the world, and that requires a lot of different people.”

When national headlines recently filled with killings of black men by white police officers, white evangelicals nationwide called for more diversity in their churches to achieve greater social justice.

Among them were leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention who will hold a summit in March called “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation.

“While our culture navigates complex questions about race, the Bible presents racial reconciliation as a gospel issue: our reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ should transform our relationships with others, regardless of their ethnicity,” reads the summit’s promotional material.

They face resistance, however, among those who recall when Southern Baptists weren’t quite so welcoming.

The convention formed over disputes supporting slave owners. Some pastors preached that the Bible condoned slavery and admonished slaves to obey their masters. During the civil rights era, many Southern Baptist pastors actively opposed integration. The convention has since formally apologized.

“They have that baggage,” Darby said. “A piece of it is that a lot of those denominations were late in changing their thoughts and ideas following the Civil War.”

Another obstacle is that some conservative white Protestant churches still preach ideas that sound too much like Republican politics to attract many black worshipers, who tend to sympathize more with the Democratic Party.

“They interweave faith and GOP politics in a way that doesn’t resonate to black ears,” Darby said.

Today, some among the local faithful have decided that socioeconomic issues can affect the entire community and must be addressed in a more aggressive, cooperative and systematic way.

The interfaith and diverse Charleston Area Justice Ministry formed in 2012 to stimulate grassroots activism and push civic leaders and policy makers to institute reforms that boost social and economic inequality.

Each year, the group picks a cause or two. In 2014, it was early childhood education and juvenile incarceration; this year it’s fair wages. Then the group launches a concerted effort to gather data, assess best practices, examine programs outside of the Lowcountry and pitch solutions to people in power.

The effort has mobilized thousands of people from two dozen houses of worship, black and white. They gather for strategy meetings, public conversations and a large-scale, once-per-year “Nehemiah Action Assembly” that fills the pews of a large local church with a diverse mix of concerned citizens.

It is among the most visible and inclusive effort in the Lowcountry to bring all kinds of people of faith together around a common cause.

King said she recently joined the effort, along with fellow members of St. Mark’s.

“It’s renewed my faith in humankind.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistated the black population at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It’s about 70 percent.