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Multiethnic churches still rare in 21st century

By Lucas L. Johnson Ii

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 3:30 p.m. MDT

in a Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 photo, Michael Catt, left, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., introduces Mt. Zion Baptist Church pastor Daniel Simmons during Sherwood's annual ReFRESH conference. The ministers and their congregations have forged a friendship, and often hold joint worship services.

Todd Stone, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a young white minister, Michael Catt said he was fired from a Mississippi church for quoting Martin Luther King Jr. He never forgot it.

"Getting fired ... was really a pivotal, defining moment for me," he said.

Now 58, he's pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and among a few churches taking steps to create — and maintain — multiethnic congregations more than half a century after King gave his poignant sermon about the divisiveness among so-called Christians.

In 1956, King wrote a sermon entitled "Paul's Letter to American Christians," in which he spoke as if the Apostle Paul were delivering a message to the modern-day church.

King said: "You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning ... you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America."

There are currently between 300,000 and 350,000 congregations in the U.S., according to Michael Emerson, a sociology professor and co-director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, Texas. Ninety-two percent are homogeneous, meaning at least 80 percent of the congregation is comprised of a single racial group.

When Catt became pastor of Sherwood Baptist in 1989, he noticed his predominantly white congregation was a stark contrast to the small city of Albany, whose population is about 65 percent black and where few concessions were achieved from the city government after King visited there during the civil rights movement.

"You can't pastor a church in a community that's predominantly African American and look out on a lily white crowd, because you're not being honest," Catt recently told The Associated Press.

He began by diversifying the church's leadership. He ordained its first black elder, and would later appoint a black senior associate pastor.

But it was a tragic flood in Albany in 1994 that eroded racial barriers even more and created a sense of unity that still exists today. Catt and his congregation reached out to the predominantly black Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which had been damaged by the flood.

There Catt met Senior Pastor Daniel Simmons, who is black, and the two forged a friendship that spawned a novel idea: pulpit swapping. Now, the two regularly preach at each other's church and their congregations come together for those occasions. Catt, Simmons and their mixed congregation are featured in a new movie "Courageous", produced by Sherwood Baptist, which was also behind the successful movie "Fireproof."

"We learn from each other," Simmons said of the two churches. "We mutually support and encourage each other."

Pastors Ken Whitten and Jeffery Singletary have a similar practice. Whitten, who is white, is the pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., and Singletary, who is black, leads Exciting Central Baptist Church in Tampa.

Whitten said Singletary was pastor of a small 50-member church a few years ago when he approached him with the idea of starting a multiethnic church.

"If we're going to change our culture, they've got to see it," Whitten recalled telling Singletary at the time.

From that conversation was born Exciting Central Baptist, which currently has about 760 members. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy attends, and late NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was a member.

For one of Selmon's recent funeral services, Whitten allowed the service to be held at his nearly 10,000-member church and Singletary preached the eulogy, an example of how the two pastors also switch pulpits and merge their congregations.

Singletary says such a practice "aligns with the heart of the Lord."

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