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Weekly multiethnic worship service in North Charleston ends, but has successes

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Shareka Sullivan (left) and Mike Jeter sing during The Gathering church service at Aldersgate United Methodist Church on Remount Road in North Charleston on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. The Gathering, which was a combined contemporary worship between Aldersgate United Methodist Church and Enoch Chapel, has come to an end. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Calls for racial reconciliation echoed across the Charleston region after the Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015.

While round-table and panel discussions invited people to talk about race and religion, two local congregations took things a step further when they started a worship service to bring black and white Christians together.

That service, known as The Gathering, ended Dec. 21, but its faith leaders say it demonstrated what true racial reconciliation looks like, as well as the challenges faced when merging two different cultures.

"We were a witness for racial reconciliation in this community," said the Rev. Erik Grayson, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

Aldersgate, a predominately white congregation, and Enoch Chapel, a mainly black church, began their initiative two years ago, after the 2015 killing of Walter Scott, an African American fatally shot by a white North Charleston police officer, and the Emanuel AME Church shooting that claimed the lives of nine African American parishioners.

The goal was to create a multiethnic worship experience that welcomed the "unchurched" and the service became an opportunity for many of the community's low-income residents to seek spiritual fulfillment and material aid such as food.

The groups selected Saturday evenings as The Gathering's worship time, which enabled participants to continue to attend their home churches on Sunday mornings.

But drawing a crowd on a Saturday night proved to be the most challenging aspect of the service.

Attendance once reached 60 worshipers, but then dwindled. The churches began to struggle financially to sustain the service and, by Dec. 21, it was time to call it quits.

“It brought tears to my eyes," said the Rev. Victoria Richardson, pastor of Enoch. "But we had to do what we had to do.”

What made the service unique is its attempt to break a long-standing practice in America where black and white communities often worship separately.

During the 19th century, Southern white slaveholders and enslaved Africans attended church together, though on unequal terms, with blacks relegated to the balconies and whites in the pulpits often asserting their rationale for slavery.

To escape religious oppression, many slaves formed “invisible institutions” on plantations where, hidden in forest brush, blacks merged Christianity with African culture as they sang spirituals and listened to sermons about liberation.

In the North, many blacks already had left predominately white congregations to form their own denominations. In the South, after the Civil War, the "invisible institutions" became visible as freed blacks, many of them expelled from white congregations, started their own churches.

Religious separation along racial lines persisted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and Sunday mornings have long been called the most segregated time in America.

Today, however, more faith leaders emphasize the importance of multicultural worship, pointing to scripture in the Book of Revelation which prophesies about a heavenly chorus "of all nations."

Grayson believes that it is good for churches to be multiethnic, but that mergers should be voluntary, not forced by church leadership.

"It has to be spirit-led," he said. "Our desire for multiethnic worship should never take away the sense of community and heritage we’ve come to know in our churches.”

For the two North Charleston Methodist churches, creating a cooperative worship experience was a "good challenge," Grayson said.

The two groups, both traditional in their worship style, at times had different understandings about what a contemporary service looked like, the pastor said.

Some felt that "spirit-filled" meant a person spoke, led, prayed or sung according to how the Spirit moved him, Grayson said. Others felt that the service should be more structured.

“Neither of those is wrong," Grayson said. "We weren’t aware of that level of distinction of the table.”

The Gathering impacted the community by serving countless homeless and low-income North Charleston residents, and it united two culturally different churches who praised God together.

It also offered a template to other churches.

“I think a lot of churches have really adopted what we were doing," Richardson said. “The impact went far and beyond. We had a lot of pastors come through and fellowship with us, even if it was just one time. I feel like after they saw what we were doing, they modeled it themselves.”

Grayson and Richardson remain close friends, and their churches plan to collaborate on other efforts in the future. 

Members at Aldersgate will be thinking about hosting their own contemporary service. Some worshipers, like Michael Pfaehler, grew up in a mostly white church and hadn't been exposed to the preaching and singing styles of African American churches until The Gathering.

Pfaehler wants a contemporary service at Aldersgate to incorporate some of those aspects.

“I’m hoping we keep some of the gospel in the music," he said.

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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