On the day of 2015’s racially motivated attack on nine black worshipers in Charleston, S.C., Pastor Kyle Meier of Peak United Methodist Church picked up the phone to call Rev. James Taylor at nearby St. Mary AME Church.
Meier, who is white, asked if there was anything he and and his predominantly white church on North Salem Street could offer Taylor, who is black, and his South Salem Street congregation during a time of grief for black churches around the country.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, and I’m sorry I waited for an event like this to reach out, but it’s apparent that we need to do a better job building bridges between the churches in our communities,’ ” Meier recalled.
Meier, 28, describes that first contact as “awkward, stumbling and bumbling.”
But Taylor, 59, was patient with him, Meier said. Taylor agreed to work with Meier and his congregation, on the condition that the resulting partnership go beyond a surface-level photo opportunity.
“We were explicit that this could not be a spectacle – ‘Look at us, we’re not racist because we had dinner one time together,’ ” Meier said.
The two church leaders, concerned by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is “one of the most segregated hours in Christian America,” have spent the past year working to bring their congregations together. They sought to reckon with the issues that have kept spiritual spaces racially separated into the 21st century.
Those efforts began with dinners and shared services, but Taylor and Meier decided a book study would be the substance of the partnership. The title they selected, Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” made their intentions clear.
Between both churches, about 60 people showed interest when the book study began in September, but not all of them were immediately comfortable with the text or what would be asked of them during the next nine weeks.
“The first night that we met, everybody was a little tense,” Taylor said. “You could tell. But what I’ve learned is that if you can see that everybody’s tense, you address that. Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. And once we did that, the tension just went away.”
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. And once we did that, the tension just went away.
Rev. James Taylor
‘Not an issue we’re talking about’
Apex is a relatively white and affluent town. Its median family income of $91,000 per year is roughly twice the state’s median, according to 2015 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. About 80 percent of the town’s residents are white, and 7.5 percent are black, compared to 71 and 22 percent, respectively, according to 2015’s statewide Census figures.
“The most visible places in Apex tend to be white,” said Meier, who came to Apex about two and a half years ago after graduating from Duke Divinity School. “I could have done ministry here for 10, 20 years and not broached the subject of race. It’s not an issue we’re talking about in Apex.”
Taylor, who was born and raised in Apex, attended segregated schools until seventh grade and was among the first students to graduate from an integrated Apex High School. From that experience, he said, he understands the role of consistent, everyday interaction as a healing mechanism. He said he knew any serious effort at mutual understanding would require a deep, long-term commitment from both churches. His congregation, he said, was enthusiastic to get to work.
“Once people begin to have the conversation, you realize that everyone wants to have the same things,” Taylor said. “There’s no difference in wanting fair housing, a nice job, freedom and not being profiled by the police.”
Taylor said racial animosity hasn’t been an obstacle during the events the churches have held together. But he said gaps in understanding have been exposed when white participants begin to hear about the realities of being black in the United States.
“The surprising thing was that some of the white members did not realize that they never had what we called ‘the talk’ with their children,” Taylor said.
He used that phrase to refer to the responsibility black parents often feel to prepare their children for the possibility of unequal treatment.
“It was foreign to them,” Taylor said. “Not just the police, but when you go into the store, that people are watching you more than they would a white person. On that level, they were just not aware.”
Meier said he was pleased to see that in the first few sessions, the white members of his church tended to do much more listening than talking.
“But we tried not to make it feel like it was their responsibility to make this mend happen,” Meier said. “We held the class at St. Mary. We intentionally did not have it (at Peak Methodist). It was about us submitting to their authority, their experience on this.”
The study of Wallis’ book ended in November, with about 40 or so people regularly attending the sessions.
But Meier and Taylor said they are both working to keep the joint effort moving forward. Taylor said he wants to see the connections forged in book discussions grow into relationships with roots outside the church, and Meier mentioned reaching out to a nearby mosque about participating in a similar initiative.
“I remember preaching a sermon after Ferguson,” Meier said. “I said, ‘We have to get into the habit of understanding is that because it’s happening in Ferguson or somewhere far away, you can’t just say those people are not part of my community or not like me. You have to care to be a follower of Jesus.’ ”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan