In most American communities there are two of everything: two movie theaters; two malls; two of each type of school and two of most types of church. This is not a modern day Noahian tale, rather it is the lingering effect of de jure segregation.
In most cities, the segregative trend not only exists in places of worship, in fact it is in America's churches, synagogues and mosques that the trend is most apparent. Dr. Martin King famously lamented, "At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this." Katrina however, in her destruction, caused two churches to confront their role in American segregation in a very real way.
Grace Methodist, a 155 year old African-American congregation was rendered homeless when Katrina ravished their historic church located at Iberville and North Prieur. Mostly white First Methodist church, walking distance from Grace, was flooded with five feet of Katrina flood waters. Further, it's membership had waned from 1200 to 700 people pre-storm. In fact in in the days immediately after Katrina, as few as 30 people attended weekly Sunday service.
Neither church exists today. Instead, there is only First Grace United Methodist Church. The two congregations overcame Americas most persistent divider: race. The congregations took the courageous step of forgoing their separate racial identities in favor of an integrated oneness. it was no easy task. First Methodist had a storied near two century history. And, Grace Methodist, like so many black churches had a key role in the New Orleans' black political and civil rights communities. Merging the churches meant a perceived end to each of these valiant legacies in favor a new joint identity.
It also meant members had to address more corporeal matters like will the choir continue with the more traditional and classical sound that First was accustomed too or the rhythmic soulful syncopation more common at Grace. Or what cooking style will the new congregation adopt at church dinners: Grace's soul food or First's Italian and Irish comfort food. The questions and concerns were plentiful. But the congregation and it's leaders stayed focused on unifying the churches, for, before them laid an historic opportunity to recommit themselves to the tenants of their faith though racially integration. The final decision to unify was made in 2008.
I visited First Grace United Methodist for the first time in the Fall of 2009. I've been a dozen or so times since then for community events and to Sunday service as a guest of friends who are members of the church. I've never seen a church more reflective of New Orleans' diversity. Each time I have visited, the isles overflowed with people of all races and ethnicities who had forged true bonds of friendship that easily shown through in both their actions and words
As we consider Dr. King's legacy, I invite you to consider whether integration is a component in any of the major facets of your own life; at your place of worship, work, school and peer circles. I invite you to honor King's legacy by stepping out of your comfort zone. Spend some time making friends in a social environment where people who look like you are not the majority.
"Hither my little world wended its crooked way on Sunday to meet other worlds, and gossip, and wonder, and make the weekly sacrifices with frenzied priest at the alter of the 'old-time religion." - W.E.B. Dubois