Merging Churches Bridge Racial Tension

by Allison Hurtado, staff writer
Living Grace Church, Great Falls, Montana

Several years ago Andre and Peggy Murphy moved to Montana to pastor an existing church. Commissioned and sent by Dr. Robin Holland’s congregation at Living Hope Baptist Church in Aurora, Colorado, the Murphys felt supported in taking the lead. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as planned. They had to leave their position at the Montana church and wanted to move back to Colorado. But to their surprise, when they left the existing church, a group followed them. Peggy says they were ready to call it quits, but instead Dr. Holland encouraged them to stay, and under Dr. Holland’s leadership, they pastored the group of 30 people in their basement. The group outgrew the space, and Andre began looking for a meeting location.

They found Grace Baptist Church, which had affiliated with Converge in 1920. The congregation was small and aging, with a few young families and children. Andre approached the church leaders about renting a space, and they agreed. Sharing the building was only the beginning of the relationship. Gerry Devereux (pictured above), the pastor at the time, saw life in Murphy’s group and welcomed their congregation into their building. He had been planning his retirement, so why not pass the torch to this young, vibrant congregation?

Black and white churches merge

The two churches officially merged September 2013, now one congregation, with their first African American pastor. Peggy was hesitant about how it would work. Great Falls, Montana, has a population of 70,000, with only three African American churches. The Murphys were meeting people who had never known a black person before Andre stepped into the senior pastor role. She wondered, “Would they stay? Would they leave the congregation?”

As any with church merger, a few people left. But three years later the congregation is thriving, with about 110 attendees. Peggy says the mix of people is unlike any other church she’s been a part of. When they lived in Denver, diversity was all around them, as compared to the majority-white population in Great Falls. Today, in what is now Living Grace Church, on a Sunday morning you’ll experience a variety of worship styles. 

“We have no style here. We sing a gospel song, a contemporary song and a hymn,” Peggy said.  “It’s been really inviting and welcoming to everybody. However, we’ve also had people who visit and, when Andre steps into the pulpit, they walk out.  We celebrate our differences but realize what we are united in is our love for Christ— but we can’t work it out by ignoring it.”

Confronting the black-white tension

This led to the church’s first Diversity Sunday. Andre and Peggy both felt the need for Living Grace Church to have a conversation about racial tensions in the country.

“How do you tackle the big problem of race if you can’t do it in your own house first?” Peggy said. “So we decided to do it in our church." 

They gave congregants a survey to fill out, asking what they didn’t understand and what they felt was controversial. They asked about traditions and worship styles, even about ethnic hair and the Black Lives Matter movement. Peggy sat in the back of the church as the teen ministry led the conversation on October 9.  She said the service lasted longer than usual, and she wasn’t sure if people would get up and walk out.   

“People embraced it. I was a little nervous about some of the topics and how people would receive the event, but even when the topic was The Black Lives Matter movement, the congregation was engaged and actively listening,” she said. “Even down to the survey question about hair. Many non-blacks in our congregation didn’t know how hard it could be for African Americans to find someone to cut and style their hair correctly.”

Peggy says the hands kept going up for an hour and a half. What she thought might end in hurt feelings and anger ended in a better understanding of one another. Living Grace Church is a testament to what it means to be better together.

Three years and counting

“It was so amazing to have the freedom to bring up topics and have people say, ‘Thank you for explaining that to me, I never knew that about you,’” Peggy said. 

On October 16, Living Grace celebrated their third anniversary. The excitement in the sanctuary was contagious. Members brought friends and family, and another congregation brought their members to join in the celebration. Edna Robinson, from Dr. Holland’s church, Living Hope, was a guest vocalist and did an amazing job of bringing everyone to their feet in worship. Chaplain Deborah Hughley, an Air Force chaplain recently stationed in Great Falls, and a member of Living Grace, brought the message from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.  

The celebration continued with a luncheon and fellowship. Peggy says they look forward to another year with Andre’s vision.

“My prayer is we continue to being a loving church that welcomes and is inviting to everyone,” Peggy said. “I’m happy we are growing in numbers, but my heart’s desire is that the people in our congregation will grow closer to God each day, and they will have a hunger and thirst for the Word of God.  God has done an amazing thing here at Living Grace, and I am excited to see what God has for us next.”

    Point - Fall 2017

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