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TO MERGE AND BE ONE 

Challenging history and cultural hurdles, an all-white and an all-black church take some tough first steps on a journey to combine.

BY JESSE BOGAN • jbogan@post-dispatch.com

FLORISSANT - Judging by the contents of his living room, Leo Dienhart didn't seem like he'd be open to dramatic change. A turntable and a stack of records sat near a 1963 Zenith television, bought the year Dienhart and his wife, Nancy, got married and moved into their house.

But there sat Dienhart, 70, with his pastor going over a few loose ends for a church service that would challenge history.

Politicians drafted proclamations for the celebratory event last Sunday, congratulating the congregation for daring to cross racial boundaries by merging an aging all-white and vibrant all-black church into one: Bethel-Providence Christian Church.

"In order for the community to be strong, you have to have unity, " explained the Rev. Charles Pennington Jr., the black minister of the new nondenominational church. "This goes beyond the boundaries of St. Louis County. This will make Missouri stronger."

Dienhart, the white president of the church board, listened to him and approved.

"I hope some radical S.O.B. doesn't shoot me, but I agree with you, " said Dienhart, a retired barber who is going blind and suffers from diabetes. "All people are basically looking for the same thing. They want what's best for their family."

Bethel-Providence faces an enormous obstacle.

Sunday morning service is often seen as the most segregated time of the week for a stubborn reason. Unlike schools, neighborhoods, and the workplace, churches haven't been forced to integrate. For centuries, the Christian flock has been splintered, each church with its own cultural way of doing things.

Those differences have confronted the merger. Music has been a hurdle. One former congregant said worshipping with whites robbed some of the joy.

Where one outside observer saw the hand of God at work, another said the financial motivations of the union undermined its authenticity.

People of both groups have left. Still, many more congregants like Rechelle Nichols remain. "People accepting change is the hardest, even though you want to do it, " said Nichols, 56, who grew up in Kinloch, the predominantly black community near the airport. "You are talking about two different cultures, two different faiths. It's like going in to a new job, with lots of new people. You know you have to adapt to it and do what you gotta do."

Even though the two congregations officially merged, amid hugs and handshakes, the new church has maintained separate services.

One is a lively worship service that draws an African-American crowd.

The other is a subdued affair that the whites attend - closer to the kind of service Dienhart was raised with, sitting still, listening quietly to the pastor. Back then, nobody waved their arms and yelled amen. There wasn't a saxophone. Definitely no "praise dancers" marching, dressed in tights and red gloves, down the aisle and around the altar.

Once a month at Bethel-Providence, the two styles meet for combined worship.

But as Pennington sat on an orange couch in Dienhart's living room, the two men discussed a delicate proposition.

Pennington had been getting a lot of calls to offer just one service.

"I am for it, " Dienhart said. "If we are going to be one, why divide it?"

COMING TOGETHER

Dienhart remembers growing up in north St. Louis, when there weren't "gun-bangers" on the corner and you could walk home from old Sportsman's Park at night.

He remembers seeing race riots when the public swimming pool at Fairground Park opened to black residents.

He remembers joining what became Bethel United Church of Christ after it journeyed with white flight from its origins in the city to a blond brick building at 14700 New Halls Ferry Road in unincorporated St. Louis County.

There used to be hundreds of worshippers, so many they put folding chairs in the aisles for Christmas and Easter. Then another migration sent whites farther west to St. Charles, St. Peters, Wentzville. There weren't fresh bodies coming in.

"Nancy and I are kind of oddballs, " he said. "We don't like too much change. We liked it there and stayed."

The cornerstone of the church where they meet reads: "That they may all be one." It was laid a year after the landmark Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Taken from the Gospel of John, the wording is a strong belief of the United Church of Christ, the progressive denomination that Bethel left to merge with the nondenominational Providence Christian Center.

In recent years, Bethel had been lucky to get 30 people together for worship. The treasurer predicted Bethel could last only another year supporting a full-time pastor with benefits. The church's allegiance to its denomination was also weakening.

Meanwhile, Pennington had left a traditional black church in Wellston. He said he was frustrated with the lack of financial support from the African Methodist Episcopal hierarchy.

Pennington started Providence Christian Center, which first met in a Hazelwood cafeteria when it lacked a building. Later it moved in and rented space at Bethel in 2009.

"They said make yourself a home, and we did, " Pennington said.

After Bethel's pastor resigned, the church asked Pennington to fill in for its services as well. But when he started preaching, he didn't think the white congregation liked him. They weren't responsive during worship.

"They didn't say 'amen' or anything, " he said.

So he lent each person two "amens" that they were to use during the service. He used humor in his sermons and addressed racial differences without tap dancing around political correctness.

Eventually the two churches started to seriously consider merging. Bethel had the building, paid for and at a prime location, that the congregations were already sharing. Providence had the healthy flock.

REACHING OUT

Up the road at Cross Keys Baptist Church, the Rev. Jeff Wells said he was impressed that the old congregation was stretching itself to keep "doing ministry in the kingdom, " rather than face losing a church to commercial development.

"I hope we would do the same thing, " he said. "Even as Christians, we regularly see our race before we see ourselves as Christians."

But the Rev. Starsky Wilson, pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ on North Grand, is not impressed.

"What happened is a business deal, " said Wilson, part of the denomination that Bethel left. "It was quite opportunistic. I think these members of Bethel have been taken advantage of."

Wilson, 34, is black and wrote a seminary thesis on the potential of a multicultural future in American churches. He said sustainable multicultural worship is a worthy but difficult goal. Typically, white membership falls away when kids hit confirmation age and after church leadership shifts from white to black.

The church he pastors at St. John's was historically white. In the 1970s, it absorbed part of a black congregation that closed. None of the original white members remain.

He predicted a similar fate for Bethel-Providence: "There will be at that corner a very strong and vibrant black church. That's what it's going to be."

But in the days leading up to the joint service, Pennington said he felt like God is using him as a "change agent" committed to growing a diverse following.

"It was providence that guided this whole thing, " he said. "It almost fell into place."

He recognized that the church could be "in jeopardy" of becoming all black. In 10 years, many of the white members won't be able to attend anymore. He said young white families are needed.

"Whatever you can visualize, you can make it happen, " he said. "You have to learn how to reach out."

PRAISING GOD

They'd worshipped together before, but this was a special day, and a crowd of about 100 people showed up last Sunday. There was a new church sign out front. Bylaws were registered. And proclamations waited to be read celebrating the merger.

Bassist Derrick Byrd approached the microphone and surveyed the diverse crowd. Many wore red, black and white to show unity.

"Did you know that heaven is going to look like this?" he told them. "So we are just going to get used to it now. Amen."

Drums and an electronic keyboard kicked in for the opening song. People immediately started to sway. They moved their heads and feet. Elderly white congregants did their best to clap as some folks cried out the lyrics: "Come and lift a holy hand."

The next song was a mellow hymn, "Blessed Assurance, " written by a blind woman during post-Civil War reconstruction. A mixture of piano and calm singing, it seemed a throw-out to the older congregation.

But the overall volume of the service was loud and proud. At one point the music was so intense that when a woman stood up in a pew and yelled, "Hey, choir!" and started to sing along, few seemed to notice. Clean riffs from a saxophone screamed.

Pennington calmed the room to recognize Dienhart and the rest of the church board. Evenly split between black and white members, the diversity of the leadership wouldn't have been possible unless others had been willing to step down, Pennington said.

Harley Krieger, who led Bethel when it first moved to the suburbs and now believes the church is "on the frontier of what the Christian ministry should be, " gave Pennington a decorative plate. Standing beside him, Krieger, 86, affectionately told the crowd how "special this boy is, " a word choice about Pennington that caught a few people off guard. But he got past the brief bump and said: "We are fortunate to have this man so dedicated, so inspired."

Pennington, 46, preached about his personal story. The audience interacted at every pause.

Listen!

He was born in St. Louis, but as a teenager Pennington moved to Taylorville, Ill., where he said all but a few students in his high school class were white. He said their music was foreign, but he somehow learned to love rock 'n' roll.

Yeah, that's right!

"Sometimes we have to grow into things, " he preached. "They don't start out as comfortable as the way we really want it, and that is a challenge for us today.

"It may not be easy, but we can do it. We have to do it."

Amen!

AN OPPORTUNITY

When the service was over, Phil Dunning, 61, the only white guy in the choir, got in the long line for lunch in the church basement. Dunning said he was lost on stage because he was trained to read music. He struggled to improvise like his colleagues. He foresees continuing separate services.

But he saw the blessing: "This is the biggest crowd that we've had in years, " he said.

Carole Allen Hunt, 63, reflected on the historical perspective.

"Younger people just take this for granted, " she said. "I remember when we couldn't go into Woolworth's and sit at the counter. This is just unreal."

Still, as the initial excitement of the lunch crowd settled, the room grew quiet, and there seemed to be a racial division between the tables, apart from an occasional migration.

Dienhart and his wife sat quietly at the corner of one table, finishing their meals. He'd need to go home for an insulin shot before another service started. There were still proclamations to read, speeches to be heard. Pennington would take an official oath to support the new bylaws of the church.

Dienhart thought the day was "very nice and very orderly."

The dancers, the loud music, that didn't bother him. He saw an opportunity to reach people who want to attend a church that tries to put color to the side.

"I believe it is something that God would want us to do, " he said, "to merge and be one."

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