Brown joined leaders of nine denominations who spent the King holiday weekend inaugurating Churches Uniting in Christ, an effort to bring their predominantly white and black churches together on a regular basis for communion services and action against racism.
But in the hours before and after they marched to the balcony where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain to proclaim their goal to overcome "the sin of racism," church leaders acknowledged there is much work ahead for them.
Among predominantly African-American denominations, statistics on white members are virtually nonexistent, with most officials agreeing that "sprinkling" is an appropriate description. "I'm very uncomfortable with it at the grass-roots level," said Bishop Nathaniel Linsey, senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He said interracial services like the ones that happened here and elsewhere to inaugurate Churches Uniting in Christ are a starting point but that any efforts for integrated worship have to be planned. "It won't just happen by itself," said Linsey, who is based in Cincinnati.
The Rev. Harrison Bonner, who represented leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at the Memphis events, said white people generally "just don't walk up and join" predominantly black congregations in his denomination. "The only Caucasian members we usually get for the most part ... is with a mixed marriage or a mixed relationship and one of them already belongs to the church," said Bonner, of Waterbury, Conn.
Bishop T. Larry Kirkland, president of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Council of Bishops, said he can name no reason "whatsoever" for congregations not to move toward integration. "If we are followers of Christ ... then all people should worship together," he said in an interview before the Memphis ceremonies. Although most of his denomination's congregations are predominantly black, Kirkland knows of cases where local churches have begun to include Hispanic ministries. And, Kirkland added, the traditional notion that worship styles separate black and white congregants is no longer always the case. "Our services used to be characterized by much more emotion, which did not attract some other ethnic groups," he said. "But now you can find all kinds of creativity in our worship."
During the procession for the liturgy marking the inauguration of the Churches Uniting in Christ, the banner for the United Methodist Church read "open hearts, open minds, open doors" and featured photos of United Methodists of many hues. But, like many denominations, the people of different colors are often in separate congregations. "What that banner represents is a vision of the future," said Bishop Melvin Talbert, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Church. "That banner does not symbolize what's happening in every congregation now, but it does reflect what's happening in some of the congregations."
One of the nine member groups of the Churches Uniting in Christ has a different racial history from the rest. The International Council of Community Churches has an overall church membership that is about 50 percent white and 50 percent black because it began with a 1950 merger of a predominantly black council of churches and a predominantly white council of churches.
But despite this "very progressive" start, the Rev. Michael Livingston, the group's first African-American executive director, expects its mostly segregated congregations to continue. "I wish that American society ... truly encouraged, tolerated, was conducive to people of different races worshipping together in local congregations but ... for the foreseeable future it's probably going to stay that way," he said.
Like other leaders, Livingston hopes occasional intentional gatherings across racial, congregational and denominational lines--a goal of Churches Uniting in Christ--can make a difference. "What this is trying to do is to say that while for the time being we may be in congregations that are segregated, we ought to start gathering together around the Lord's table," he said. "There's no reason why the churches that are segregated can't start doing that."
Just a week before the Memphis ceremonies, religious leaders gathered in Washington for a dialogue on race and culture sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice. On that day, the birthday of King, the conference released "Denouncing Racism: A Resource Guide of Faith-Based Principles." The 49-page document shows that for decades, religious groups have spoken out against racism.
But Sanford Cloud, president of the human rights organization, said it will take leadership in the nation's pulpits to move from statements to integrated sanctuaries. "There have been denominations that in fact have reached out to others traditionally excluded," said Cloud. "But ... America's most segregated hour is still 11 o'clock on Sunday morning, which means that the faith leadership in this country still has an awful lot of work to do to play its central role in leadership."