African-American, Anglo churches merge in Oakland

Michael Smith
Tapestry Church

A beautiful picture of racial unity around the gospel has emerged in Oakland, California.

This past June, The Way Church, a Converge congregation of predominantly African-American families, and Oakland Communion, a Christian Reformed congregation of mostly Anglo young singles, joined together to form Tapestry Church.

Church planters Bernard Emerson, the 48-year-old African-American pastor of The Way, and Kyle Brooks, the 31-year-old Anglo pastor of Oakland Communion, met a few years ago at a community clergy meeting and quickly became friends. They learned they shared the same theological views and dreams, hopes and aspirations for ministry and community work.

The pastors started talking about what it would look like to combine their churches into one. But the merger wasn’t something they rushed into — it was a two-year journey.

“We didn’t want to assume that our congregations would get along because we did,” Emerson said, “so we were intentional about creating space for our two communities to be together.”

Emerson started attended Brooks’ events, so the Oakland Communion congregation could get to know him. Brooks also visited The Way.

The pastors then shared the merger idea with the congregations, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from both churches.

The congregations began worshiping together every eight weeks, then every four weeks and on holidays. They also went through an eight-week devotional called Multiethnic Conversations. This gave people from both congregations a chance to express their hopes, dreams and fears about the merger.

“The overwhelming response from pastor Kyle’s church was the idea of comfort. ‘I’m going to have to give up a certain level of comfort. I’m going to have to sing songs that aren’t familiar to me. I’m going to have to make friends with people I’m not used to,’” Emerson said.

“The overwhelming response from my congregation was, ‘Will they accept me for who I am?’”

Tapestry ChurchEmerson thinks the secret to making a multiethnic, multigenerational church survive and thrive is being intentional about being in each other’s space and sharing life together.

“It’s not just about people being in the same room on Sunday,” Brooks told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “But it’s about people being able to embrace the reality about the church, which is, as Jesus put it, that we are one.”

Emerson says the new congregation, like any church or family, has its share of disagreements and misunderstandings. But by thinking the best of each other they are able to talk things out.

He says the church’s story of racial unity has resonated with the community. About 200 people attended the June 3 launch service at Learning Without Limits, the school the church meets in.

“People were saying, ‘I just came to be part of history. I just came to see if it was real,” he said. “A lot of people that have no faith at all were there and said, ‘I just came to see because this makes the Jesus thing attractive.”

Emerson says he’s been surprised that the merger has received so much media attention, with coverage by the Chronicle, NPR and a local television station.

“I just thought we were doing what came naturally. I guess it is a big deal when I think about it. One guy even wrote to us to say, ‘I had given up on church because it hurt me, but reading your story gives me hope.’”

The scriptural call for unity in the church is clear: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Unfortunately, that is not the way the church in America has historically been.

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. lamented “that 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours ... in Christian America.”

According to a 2018 LifeWay Research study, 81 percent of Protestant pastors say their congregation is predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group.

“The point of the church is to be a display of God’s love for the world,” Brooks told NPR. “We cannot do that effectively if we do not love each other.”

Michael Smith is content specialist for Converge.

    Point - September 2018

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