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.

"I don't really see a while lot of interaction," said Eaton. "They just kind of stay in their community and we stay in ours. That's not the right thing, but that's how it is."

Changing Churches

On the most recent visit to Burt Avenue Wesleyan Church, it was still evident that despite taking a forward step in worshiping together, congregants of both churches were reluctant to give up their old habits. Members of Biggers' church instinctively sat together in two pews in the front of the primarily white church.

"Ya'll spread out, spread out, make some friends," Biggers urged.

But the service seemed genuinely open and inclusive. Both white and black congregants sang together, took communion together and afterward, joined in a meal together.

"It was awesome, just completely awesome," said Means after the service. "I mean colossal. I know God was showing me some stuff."

Eaton agreed.

"I think it's just a wonderful idea," said Eaton. "How else are we gonna do that in this world? Little by little, one step at a time. That's how I look at it."

And that's how Biggers looks at it as well. He believes now is the time for America's churches to take the lead in healing the nation's racial wounds.

"We are all brothers and sisters in Christ," said Biggers. "If there's one Lord, one faith, one baptism, then we ought to be able to worship together That's why we go, we go to worship, to make a point that in Coshocton it's not the most segregated day in America."

As word about Mission Sunday spreads, Biggers says he is now receiving invitations to visit other congregations. While those invitations may be local, Biggers has dreams of expanding Mission Sunday beyond Coshocton.

"Can you imagine [400, 500] churches across the country, one Sunday would close their doors and go visit another church that looked different from them?" asked Biggers. "Could you imagine what would happen spiritually?"

On June 29, 2008, Biggers is planning a nationwide Mission Sunday. He hopes to organize 1,000 churches across the United States to visit churches that he says "look different from one another."

If you want to learn more about Bigger's nationwide Mission Sunday this June, please contact him by filling in the form below.

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