Ministers' conversations lead to church camaraderie
Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series called “One Voice,” aimed at fostering healthy conversations about race and community relations.
Bringing two ethnically diverse churches together often happens when two ministers join forces first.
Such was the case with the Rev. Doug Serven and the Rev. Michael McDaniel.
The two ministers began meeting four years ago. Serven, lead pastor of City Presbyterian Church, said he and McDaniel, senior pastor of Northeast Missionary Baptist Church, had attended breakfast gatherings hosted by Oklahoma City attorney Justin King. The gatherings are designed to bring people of different ethnicities and backgrounds together to discuss a variety of issues, particularly race relations, in an informal setting.
Serven said he and McDaniel swapped pulpits several times, and they exchanged music (choir and musicians) a time or two. Then Serven's predominantly white congregation and McDaniel's predominantly black congregation began getting together for picnics, parties and service projects.
Just like their leaders, many church members became friends, the two pastors said.
"It's a challenge to get someone to see that that's important, but once they see it, they get it," he said.
"I think our church doesn't see it as a challenge because they are making friends."
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Other ministers who have brought their ethnically diverse congregations together shared similar sentiments.
In 2017, the Rev. Joe Ligon, then-senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Marlow, joined with the Rev. Walter Wilson, senior pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Lawton and the Rev. Willie Smith, senior pastor of Lawton's Bethlehem Baptist Church, for an "Evening of Unity" in Lawton. More recently, the Rev. Daniel U'Ren and the Rev. Dwayne Rodgers swapped pulpits in 2018, and their choirs exchanged places in February.
Ligon said he and Wilson already were friends before they attended a racial reconciliation event hosted by the Rev. Anthony Jordan, then executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Ligon said he, Wilson and Smith initially began by hosting a four-night revival together with their congregations attending a night of the revival at Ligon's predominantly white church and other nights at Wilson and Smith's predominantly black churches.
Eventually the three decided to have a larger gathering at a public auditorium in Lawton and invite numerous other churches.
The "Evening of Unity" included prayer, heartfelt testimonies, preaching and music.
"What we witnessed was incredible. Folks who lived in different towns and didn’t know one another were pulled together by the presence of God’s Spirit," Ligon said. "Friendships were made. Promises were made to stay in touch with new friends. We left that evening one big family of God."
Wilson echoed those views in a story in the Baptist Messenger, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's newspaper.
"The event was designed to show that regardless of our race, creed or color we can come together and fellowship with each other,” he said. "Yes it did show that we may be many members, but we all belong to one body."
Ligon recently left the pastorate to become senior associate executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
He said he has pleasant memories of the multi-church revival and the special unity event.
"Since that time, some of the members of the three (revival) congregations have visited other congregations on Sunday mornings. And every time that happens, it is like a family reunion," he said.
"This was one of the most important, most incredible things I was a part of as a pastor."
Just the beginning
U'Ren and Rodgers have great hopes for their relatively new efforts to help their congregations get to know one another.
The two met for lunch in 2018 after U'Ren thought it would be good to do something different for "Reconciliation Sunday" in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Over a meal, he and Rodgers crafted a plan to swap pulpits on the special emphasis Sunday. In October, U'Ren preached at Wildewood Christian Church, a predominantly black church where Rodgers is senior pastor, while Rodgers preached at Western Avenue Christian Church, the predominantly white church where U'Ren is senior minister.
In early March, the two churches exchanged choirs, and they hope to do other activities together, U'Ren said. "We tend to silo ourselves with people of like mind, whether that's color or socioeconomic status or just people who think like we do. But I thought, 'How do we mix things up and diversify congregations?' "
Rodgers said God calls Christians to love their neighbors.
"God's Word reminds us to give water to those who are thirsty, to give clothes to those who are naked, to provide opportunity for those who are less fortunate, to take care and to say that my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper is not determined by skin color but by belief that all of us are God's children," he said.
Serven said essentially the same thing.
He said some people will say they have friends of another race but how deep are those friendships? The thing is are they real? Are they just acquaintances or are they real friends?
"I don't want to go back to our church silos — we need each other," he said. "It's just beautiful to see the church more like what the church is supposed to be in Revelations 7:9. We have reconciliation in Christ together and so we need to be reconciled with each other."