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story.lead_photo.caption The Rev. Roy Jones (left), pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Chris Keller, dean and rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral have a conversation in the Bethel sanctuary. The two congregations have had a covenant for years and are working to deepen their relationship. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock recently concluded a series of discussions about race, faith and justice.

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock is home to a historically white congregation. Church leaders have reached out to the historically black congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an effort to forge friendships.
Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Church leaders and members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Little Rock have been talking about race, faith and justice with members of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

The churches -- one historically black, the other historically white -- are in the same neighborhood and united by a common faith but separated by tradition.

"It's often been observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America," said the Rev. Christoph Keller III, dean and rector of the cathedral. "We have strong historically black churches and strong historically white churches, and very few are completely segregated but they are predominantly [one race]."

Keller said the leadership of the two churches decided to build some bridges between the two. They had signed a covenant as sister churches in 2007, but the spark for more action was the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead.

"We needed to do something," Keller said. "That Sunday we went over to Bethel between our services and attended services there."

It was a show of solidarity. From there, Keller and the Rev. Roy Jones Jr., pastor of Bethel AME, got to know each other better.

Jones said fostering the relationship was the right thing to do.

"We should be brothers and sisters in Christ," Jones said. "We do have racial issues and social issues that we all should be able to talk about and try to get input in resolving, and getting to know each other is the best way to do it."

They started with lunches among clergy members of both churches. The discussion group followed, with lay leaders and clergy of both churches gathering weekly to talk and get to know one another.

"I would say the first goal was just to make a personal connection and establish friendship and then, having built those relationships to start establishing trust so we could talk about some of the issues we face as a society -- about policing, race relations, disparities and how people are doing in society -- the whole set of problems," Keller said. "We'd be able to do that from the point of view of a shared faith."

The group read and discussed works by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ta-Nehisi Coates. They went in with a stated purpose -- to get to know one another, to build trust, to establish friendship, to foster discussion of community concerns and to deepen conversations about race and faith in American society.

Questions they came back to often were: What is the problem, and what is the cure? What is love? What is justice? What is race, racism and racial justice? They also talked about rights and freedom and law, as well as faith and hope and their calling as Christians.

Keller said talking about race was essential.

"In America, because of the history we have, race is a sensitive topic but an important one. Healing divisions and forging greater understanding, creating more just and equitable structures, is part of our work as Americans," he said. "Churches have historically played a leading role in that, and we need to continue."

Jones said he was inspired by the discussions.

"There's a genuineness in that group from their church and ours where you can see God brought us together," he said. "Everybody in that group cared. That's important. If you are going to resolve anything, you have to care about one another and the issues of the day.

"We built trust among people. People shared their joys, victories, pains, their disappointments. People learned to trust each other and were very open and honest."

Nathaniel Daniel, a member of Bethel who participated in the group discussion, said he was touched when Trinity parishioners attended services at his church after the South Carolina shooting.

"They marched to the church," he said. "It was one of the most impressive things I've seen."

Christoph Keller, son of Keller and a member of Trinity, said he first attended a service at Bethel after the shooting.

"It was warm and caring," he said. "We have a tendency of seeing problems and spending time together only in the darkest times, and this [the group discussion] is proactive and more meaningful."

On the last night of the weekly gatherings, group members read aloud letters they had written for a family member or friend to read 50 years in the future.

"We were explaining to them how Little Rock was in our time and perhaps they could see how the city has changed, hopefully because of what we did together and what we shared and did from that point," Jones said. "We prayed that in 50 years Little Rock will be a safer place to live, with more opportunities, a place with less crime. We hoped they would see the difference."

With the discussion group coming to an end, Jones said participants are eager to continue the process. They hope to add another discussion group and for the two congregations to work together on service projects, helping families and children in need. They also hope to do more activities together, such as a recent worship service between the two churches' young members.

"We have to work together other than having dinner and talking about a book," Jones said. "We all serve one God and we're all in the same family, so we can work together ... then when we deal with issues and concerns we are unified.

"There's a lot of tension in the community itself, but if we work together it will open people's eyes to say 'we can do this.'"

Keller said he hopes the churches can serve as a model for others.

"We all had hopes coming into this group discussion, but none of us knew completely what to expect from it," Keller said. "No one had high apprehension but there was some uncertainty. But it's been wonderful.

"It feels like there's a real closeness that's developed among this group of people -- not that we've solved the problems of the world, but you can do a lot more problem-solving when you've created a set of strong relationships first.

"It's been a special few weeks for all of us and we want to continue."

Religion on 03/25/2017

Print Headline: Black, white congregations unite in faith

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