Segregated Sundays: Taking on Race and Religion

On a recent Sunday morning, the Rev. Cliff Biggers stood before his congregation at Shiloh Baptist Missionary Church in Coshocton, Ohio. He looked out into the scarcely filled pews of his small church and knew he had work to do that day.

In the faces of his congregation, Biggers saw not only a group of worshippers but a small army waging a war against racism in America.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. Now, 40 years after King's murder, only 7 percent of America's churches are considered racially mixed. That's a disappointingly low number for Biggers, who said he's tired of hearing that churches continue to be mostly segregated on Sundays.

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"It may be true, but what are we doing about it?" asked Biggers.

So he took action. On the fifth Sunday of any month with as many Sundays, rather than preach, Biggers takes his mostly black congregation on a walk.

"We decided to close our doors to our building and open our hearts," said Biggers. "To go out and visit another church with people that maybe don't look like us."

Congregation Crashers

At first Biggers and his dozens of congregants would show up at neighboring, mostly white, churches unannounced. The reverend prayed each Saturday night to determine which church they would visit the next morning.

When the members of Shiloh started "Mission Sunday," they were unsure how members of other congregations would react to their surprise visit.

"I think people were a little put back," said Biggers. "You have people walking in that, number one, you don't know them, and number two, they look different than you."

Even members of Biggers' congregation were apprehensive at first.

"They looked at me a little crazy eyed initially," said Biggers. "But now they can't wait to go, they're excited."

Hues in the Pews

Their initial fear was not unwarranted. The small town of Coshocton lies 90 miles northeast of the state capital in Columbus. It's the type of place where residents celebrate "Pancake Day." It's also a place where blacks make up less than 2 percent of the population.

In addition to working as a pastor, Biggers works part time as a detective in the Newark Police Department; the town is just outside of Coshocton. He jokes that he is the highest-paid black police officer there.

"'Cause I'm the only black police officer for the city of Newark," Biggers said with a laugh.

But the lack of diversity in the area is no laughing matter.

Nicole Means, a black member of Biggers' church, says race relations are strained in Coshocton. When asked what she thought of the town's diversity, Means couldn't find words and merely scoffed and shook her head.

Her silence was deafening.

Means is not alone in her observation of racism in the small community. And she is not alone in her effort for change.

Joyce Eaton is a white parishioner who attends Burt Avenue Wesleyan Church, just a few blocks from Shiloh. She has participated both times Burt Avenue Church has hosted Biggers' congregation.

Though the first visit was unannounced, the congregation at Burt Avenue has welcomed Biggers' group with open arms and recently extended a second invitation for a visit.

Eaton says this is an important exercise in the community that in 2008 is still primarily segregated in its ways.

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