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Blacks and whites merge to forge new future

c. 2008 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ These old walls have never heard music like this. On Sundays, when morning light fills the vaulted space of the former First United Methodist Church on Canal Street, drummer Vel McCall sometimes lays down an uptempo, hip-swaying gospel beat for what used to be that sober Protestant […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ These old walls have never heard music like this.

On Sundays, when morning light fills the vaulted space of the former First United Methodist Church on Canal Street, drummer Vel McCall sometimes lays down an uptempo, hip-swaying gospel beat for what used to be that sober Protestant standard “Blessed Assurance.”

The choir is thoroughly mixed, black and white. So is the rest of the Mid-City congregation, which also includes some Hispanics _ and occasionally, members are pleased to say, a handful of people whose scruffiness suggests homelessness, or something close to it.

All are quite welcome in the First Grace United Methodist Church, the new racially diverse congregation created in the marriage of predominantly white First United Methodist Church and predominantly black Grace United Methodist Church.

Before Hurricane Katrina they worshipped one mile _ and a universe _ apart.

Now “this church looks like the city,” said Jennie Hammatt-Milchenko, 23,a choir member and AmeriCorps volunteer who helps run a women’s shelter at First Grace.

It is the greatest compliment she and others can think to give their new effort. It’s the essence of what they want their church to be as it grows into an uncertain future in a radically reshaped post-Katrina landscape.

First Grace is rare, but not alone.

Hurricane Katrina wrecked so many churches in and around New Orleans that, in the more than two years since, circumstance has forced a few historically black and historically white congregations in several denominations to merge _ or, more typically, worship jointly while they work out their futures.

In the Southern Baptist world, traditionally black Hopeview Baptist Church in St. Bernard merged and moved in a year and a half ago with traditionally white Suburban Baptist Church in eastern New Orleans.

In Carrollton, predominantly white St. Matthew United Church of Christ and predominantly black Central Congregational United Church of Christ live at St. Matthew’s in a “covenant community,” just short of a merger.

And in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Pius X Parish, a mostly white congregation on the Lakefront, has temporarily taken in parishioners from two mostly black or mixed congregations in nearby Gentilly.

But at one level, the Rev. Shawn Anglim, First Grace’s first pastor, cautions it is too simplistic to see his church’s creation as a purely pragmatic shotgun wedding, with disparate congregations forced into each other’s arms by cruel circumstance.

“This didn’t have to happen, and it’s easy to underappreciate,” Anglim said. “Grace could’ve decided to merge with another black congregation. They could have said no to this. But because they’ve stayed faithful, they’ve heard a new voice, in a new language.”

Certainly nothing in their separate histories prepared either congregation for its current condition.

Grace Methodist had 155 years of tradition as an African-American congregation when Katrina roared out of the Gulf of Mexico, scattered its 100 or so active members, and blew out part of a wall in the landmark church at Iberville and North Prieur streets.

First Methodist was even older. Its history goes back 184 years, as one of the flagships of white mainline Protestantism in New Orleans. When plans for approaches to the Greater New Orleans bridge required First Methodist to abandon its St. Charles Avenue home in the mid-1950s, it merged with another congregation, then moved into a massive complex proudly topped with a 143-foot white steeple at Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway.

Built at a cost of $12 million in today’s dollars, First Methodist opened in the fall of 1960 as a bastion of prosperity, with 1,200 members and three services each Sunday.

And then the bottom dropped out.

The rise of the suburbs and the cultural and political upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s tipped First Methodist and other urban mainline Protestant congregations into a long decline.

Anglim and Marilyn Osborn, a 62-year member and now the church’s secretary,said that 10 years after the move, the congregation was down from 1,200 to 700 members. Just before Katrina, weekly attendance had fallen to a little less than 100. And as the congregation struggled to regroup after the storm, the number dipped into the 30s.

Louisiana Methodist Bishop William Hutchinson responded to Katrina with a regional recovery plan that organized crippled congregations into clusters that would work out their futures, with financial and other help from the Louisiana Conference.

Anglim, an Ohio native who had spent the past six years in campus ministry at Louisiana State University, came to New Orleans and joined three other clergy assigned to eight damaged Methodist churches.

Soon, he began concentrating on First and Grace. A year after the storm they were meeting separately in damaged buildings _ First Methodist had just restarted _ and neither had a full-time pastor.

“The bishop told me, `I’m sending you down there and not telling you what to do. You find the faith-filled people in the churches you’ve been assigned, and you start working out where the spirit is leading you.”’

Anglim said he emerged from a personal retreat last spring ready to pose leaders in both congregations a sharp question: “Don’t you think we can do more for this city as one body of Christ rather than as two bodies of Christ separated by one _ long _ mile?”

It would be reasonable to expect that the congregation that emerged would seek some middle ground between the cultures of music, worship and church life formerly lived by two different traditions.

But members say that’s not happening.

The dynamics at First Grace today are shaped not only by the collaboration of the two root congregations, but a sizable third constituency _ new, post-Katrina members, many of them young, some with children, some Hispanic _ who are eager to build a new community without the pull of memory from either First or Grace.

As a result, Anglim said, neither he nor music director S. Carver Davenport, chairman of the music department at Dillard University, strains to ration familiar standards to the “Firsters” and an equal number to the former Grace Methodist members.

“I wouldn’t say it’s in the middle. It’s someplace else new,” said the Rev. LeKisha Reed, 27, the associate pastor Hutchinson assigned to help Anglim six months ago.

That someplace else includes heavily reworked traditional music, white and black, with contemporary praise music and even secular music.

On a recent Sunday, for example, members received Communion as Hammatt-Milchenko and Tia Turner, a 25-year-old Tulane University graduate student, sang Sarah McLachlan’s haunting “Angel” and then closed the service with a finger-snapping “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

This in a white-pillared church building where before “if somebody played a drum, you’d be surprised,” Osborn said.


The services play out in a simple but elegant vaulted space where, it is plain, a terrible event happened.

First Methodist took more than 5 feet of water after the storm. Today the walls are scraped bare in spots, awaiting paint. Just behind the pulpit a temporary wall cuts off the space that used to be the chancel. The floors are bare concrete. The ruined pews have been thrown out, replaced by upholstered straight-back chairs where a congregation of 80 to 100 meets.

It is the place where the two congregations began a metaphorical courtship last summer.

By that time, Anglim had been asking leaders at Grace and First whether Katrina had provided them an opportunity to make something wholly new.

In June, they decided to worship together at First Methodist _ but with each retaining its identity. They merged in October.

Reed and others say the novelty of the situation seems to be wearing off. With the passage of time, members are becoming less self-conscious and more oriented toward working out their common future as a body of worship.

“What we’re trying to figure out now is what our passion, our ministry, will be,” said Reed. “We have people who are passionate about housing.

“I can’t imagine it being all-black or all-white or all-anything. I just want to see it grow.”


(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.)