Bishop Carlton Pearson and Rev. Marlin Lavanhar take turns officiating at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Thirteen years after a predominantly Black church and a predominantly White church merged, congregants are reflecting on their hard-fought efforts to both diversify and unify.

TWO CONGREGATIONS, ONE GOAL

Extraordinarily Different Churches find ‘Love Beyond Belief’

Thirteen years after a predominantly Black church and a predominantly White church merged, congregants are reflecting on their hard-fought efforts to both diversify and unify.

August 2021

BY KIM WHITING

“Bishop Carlton Pearson was the first person to offer help when a virus attacked my three-year-old daughter’s heart, killing her suddenly,” explains Rev. Marlin Lavanhar. “He and I knew each other only as ministerial peers in Tulsa, yet when he heard about my daughter’s death through the ministerial grapevine, he showed up on the worst night of our lives to support us. I was in Hell and he said, ‘I will sit in Hell with you.’ I welcomed him.”

Rev. Lavanhar, head minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recounts the heartbreaking night, 14 years ago, that brought him and Bishop Pearson, formerly of Tulsa’s Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center, together. Their bond and friendship soon led to a highly unusual merger: The almost all-Black former congregants of Bishop’s gospel-driven Christian mega-church joined forces with Lavanhar’s almost entirely White church, one that welcomes any beliefs—even atheism—with its slogan “Love beyond belief.”

In the 1990s, Bishop Pearson had an epiphany, he says, while learning about the genocide occurring during the country of Rwanda’s Civil War. He began questioning his church’s belief that non-Christians would go to Hell. This shift pulled him away from his fundamentalist Christian roots. In 2002, he shocked some in his congregation by asking them if they were using Jesus to protect them from a God who needed anger management training. This ignited a theological fallout in his church, a massive decline in membership, and led to the foreclosure of Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center in 2006.

By 2008, Bishop Pearson’s remaining congregation was no longer able to financially maintain the church it had moved to, and congregants found themselves churchless. (The full story surrounding Bishop Pearson’s epiphany and the fall of Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center is the subject of the 2018 Netflix movie, Come Sunday.)

Rev. Lavanhar offered to let Bishop Pearson and his congregation hold services at All Souls during the summer months of 2008, a time when the church typically reduced its services from two on Sunday, to one. Bishop Pearson gratefully took his offer, and at his first official service, 200 original All Souls’ congregants also showed up—and many continued to come throughout the summer. By the end of August, Bishop Pearson says, “We thought maybe we’d like to stay at All Souls if they’d have us.”

Rev. Lavanhar responded to Pearson’s request with a resounding yes, and after approval by All Souls’ Board of Trustees, the merger was set in motion. Bishop Pearson’s former congregants continued to hold services during the 11:30 am time slot at All Souls, and their service was dubbed “the contemporary service.” The 10 am service retained its more formal (in comparison) approach. Rev. Lavanhar or his assistant pastor, Rev. Barbara Prose, officiated at both services most Sundays. At his request, Bishop Pearson presided only on the third Sunday of each month, as he was also leading a church he had previously founded in Chicago.

 

All Souls’ contemporary service is flush with spirit, and showcases the racial diversity of the church. 

 

Thirteen years later, Reverend Lavanhar and Bishop Pearson note that creating unity among the myriad differences these congregations brought with them has been no small feat. The fact that this merger occurred in Tulsa, one of the most racially divided cities in the country and site of the worst race massacre in U.S. history, makes it all the more extraordinary. Yet those committed to making it work believe this highly unusual fusion provides insight as to how greater society might also better cultivate unity and inclusivity.

Both ministers say that of all the differences between their two congregations, theological disputes actually proved to be the least difficult. That wasn’t especially surprising, considering that most congregants who remained with Bishop Carlton at the time of the merger felt an affinity with his less fundamentalist views. All Souls, meantime, has long been known to welcome and support all beliefs, including those espoused in Christian traditions, and with the exception of its humanist service, the church embraces the spiritual.

Instead, the ministers say the style of worship of the two groups caused the most stir. Before the summer of 2008, services at All Souls tended to be similar in feel, music, and format to White Protestant churches (even though All Souls is definitely not Protestant). The mood in the sanctuary was mostly quiet and solemn, punctuated by occasional laughter spurred by the ministers’ witty humor. A pipe organ prelude accompanied the pastors as they proceeded formally down the center aisle. The choir and musicians were gifted, performing traditional church music with goose bump-raising skill. But it wasn’t the type of music one would typically get up and dance to—and in any case, folks attending these services weren’t generally the type to get up and dance. Hymns were sung in a way that was soothingly ritualistic, or meditative. Sermons were thought-provoking, eye-opening, and when they became emotionally or spiritually moving, one might hear the occasional sniffle and spot a few congregants wiping away tears. But overall, morning services at All Souls leaned toward the formal, and were more heady than emotional.

They were also almost 100 percent White.

 

There have been few theological disputes between the two churches, after the merger. Most of the issues among congregants have revolved around culture, economics, education and politics. 

 

These days, the traditional service remains much the same but congregants report that since the merger the service is more emotionally warm, the ministers more personable, and the music expanded to include some upbeat songs. Besides happy interracial camaraderie in the social hall and at the church’s many classes and events, it’s the contemporary service, and the occasional combined services, where changes –and diversity—are most evident. These services have carried forward the high energy, music-centered, congregant-participative service style of Higher Dimensions, and blended it with some of the format of All Souls.

Three Sundays a month, an All Souls minister still gives the sermon at the contemporary service and, while the feel of these talks—and sometimes the message—can be a little different than Bishop Pearson’s once-a-month sermons, the joyful energy resonates just the same. The Bible is still often referenced, though with more focus on the metaphorical and loving messages of the text. Spirit, in whatever form a congregant believes in, is celebrated, and congregants boost the ministers with callouts such as “That’s right!” and “Amen!”

The celebratory feel of the contemporary and combined services is fitting, since this congregation now has extra reason to celebrate. Members may not yet be as unified and diverse as they’d like, but they say that considering their myriad and sometimes very uncomfortable differences, how far they’ve come—and their willingness to undertake this merger in the first place—is something to rejoice.

In addition to theological and racial differences, the congregants also differ in culture, economics, education and politics. As Rev. Lavanhar says, “The differences we are working to bridge mirror the rich diversity of our country. We’re determined to succeed, and in doing so, create a model for how unity can be achieved in the midst of our country’s beautiful differences.”

During a recent joint Zoom interview, Rev. Lavanhar and Bishop Pearson were eager to explain and discuss the challenges and triumphs of the 13-year-old merger of their respective churches. But it wasn’t all serious talk. The two razzed each other and laughed often. Bishop Pearson started by saying to the reverend, “Marlin, you forgot to turn-on the good-looking filter on your camera.” It was clear they weren’t just colleagues, but true friends.

 

Bishop Carlton Pearson founded and led Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center which, at its peak, was the largest racially diverse church in the country led by a Black minister.

 

Bishop Pearson: It was about two years after Marlin’s daughter died, that my congregants and I became churchless. For 25 years, Higher Dimensions had held services for a racially diverse group of up to 6,000 people each Sunday. But by the time we lost our church we had 1,200 people still on the roll and about 400 attending, almost all of whom were Black. Marlin offered to let us hold services at All Souls during the summer months.

Rev. Lavanhar: As summer 2008 was ending, I asked Carlton what he wanted to do, because we were getting ready to resume our two-service Sundays. He said he wanted his family and his congregation to join All Souls and have his kids attend Sunday school at the church. He wanted full integration of our respective congregations. I felt so honored. My vision, and the vision of Rev. Dr. John Wolf, the longstanding minister before me, had been to have a racially diverse church. But since our founding in 1921, we had remained almost entirely White.

To have All Souls become a racially mixed church overnight was a dream come true for me. Carlton and I agreed that we wanted to create a new culture that combined our respective cultures.

Bishop Pearson: Before our merger, our respective churches had specific formulas for services that had been in place for generations. My congregation was used to audience participation, electrified music, lots of movement and energy, long songs, and repetitious lines. My former congregants complained that All Souls’ music (still being played at the 10 am traditional service) was too dead for them. Music was probably the biggest deal. Gospel is a combination of Blues and Jazz. Blues fit with the struggles of our lives, while Jazz made us celebratory, so we put Jesus into it and made it holy. The formulas that Rev. Lavanhar and I had in place at our churches met certain needs. The goal at Higher Dimensions had been to create an emotional climax, a sense of awe.

 

All Souls Unitarian Church’s head minister Rev. Marlin Levanhar says he had long dreamed of a church thriving in its diversity but, until the merger, All Souls had been almost entirely White for almost 90 years. 

 

Rev. Lavanhar: Before the merger, and as is still the case in the traditional service, my services are successful if they make people think something new, or have an “ah ha” moment. Sometimes I’m preaching and you can hear a pin drop, and I know that everyone is in that “zone,” which is the equivalent of what Bishop Pearson is describing as a sense of awe, except it’s the traditional White culture’s version of it.

Bishop Pearson: For my people, if there is no emotional climax, even if they learn something, then it isn’t enough. We’ve tried to combine these two elements into services and we’re still working on it. We wanted a stew, not a melting pot. In a stew, the tomato remains a tomato and the carrot a carrot, but each vegetable comes together and absorbs some of the taste of the other vegetables.

Rev Lavanhar: Not everyone was on board with our desire to create a church that combined the cultures of both churches. Some left. Those who stayed from my congregation realized they’d have to change and maybe get uncomfortable and allow for differences.

If you look at a graph of change, there’s an initial surge of enthusiasm, but when the honeymoon phase ends, there’s a big drop. At first, my congregation was saying, “We’ve wanted to be racially diverse forever!” Most felt honored to have Bishop Pearson’s church with us, but then some realized this was going to mean drums in church and having to get up early to go to the traditional service, instead of going to the 11:30 service like they’d done for years. I wasn’t as tolerant about their discomfort as I believe I should have been, partly because I was more focused on Bishop Pearson’s congregants feeling comfortable.

Bishop Pearson and I were both getting lots of complaints. There were cultural and theological differences that were challenging for some of the Bishop’s folks to adapt to or accept. For example, we had an openly lesbian assistant pastor, which didn’t sit well with some from the Bishop’s congregation.

One of the class differences we encountered is that people from working class environments wear work clothes all week, and on Sunday want to show up looking good and special. In contrast, professional class people, who have to wear a suit or dress-up all week, want to wear casual clothes or clothes that express themselves on Sundays. This casual-wear was taken by some of the Bishop’s congregants as disrespectful. There were academic and economic differences too, but as people tend to do, congregants from both churches boiled-down all the complexity under the topic of race.

 

At its peak, Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center in Tulsa served up to 6,000 congregants each Sunday. When the church lost its building in 2006 due to foreclosure, it was purchased by a Christian school.

 

Bishop Pearson: Higher Dimensions had been a racially mixed church, so my congregants had experience with Whites and diverse relationships. But about the only way most of Rev. Lavanhar’s congregation had experienced anything outside their White dominated culture was through out-of-state or international travel. They’d had little experience with cross-racial relationships in their day-to-day lives and weren’t sure how to handle it. There’s a difference between them wanting us to be with them and them wanting us to be like them.

Rev. Lavanhar: Many of my congregants were excited about our new Black members. The experience was eye-opening and heart-opening for them and White women particularly expressed being very happy with their new friendships. They’d say things like, “I didn’t realize my life was so empty of this kind of relationship.” Nonetheless, Black congregants were experiencing micro-aggressions from some of the White congregants. They didn’t mean to be aggressive or prejudiced, they just didn’t realize that what they were complaining about meant something more to the person—as was the case with the music. Some of my established congregation (Whites) didn’t want a steady diet of Bishop Pearson’s style, and the message they were giving off was that Bishop’s people needed to be “more like us.” Most of my congregation hadn’t had significant engagement with Blacks before. Their exposure was almost exclusively with service-related folks in some kind of transactional exchange.

Bishop Pearson: As I said before, Higher Dimensions had been a diverse church and many of my staff members had been White, so we’d had years of an interracial culture, but we had also shared a theology that unified us. With All Souls, we didn’t even have full overlap in theology. On top of that, we were transitioning to a church in the richest old-money part of town, where many of my congregants (or their parents or grandparents) had come to work for White people for generations, and that was rough.

Rev. Lavanhar: I see White people as being taught not to talk about race and my experience has been that most don’t know how to talk about it. Talking about class can be uncomfortable too. It was clear that for this to work, we needed to learn how to talk with each other and get to know each other. I invited small groups of people to what I called “Holy Conversations” meetings. I didn’t want it to be a big town hall thing, because people had deep feelings and needed an environment that felt less intimidating in order to express them.

We opened it up for people to share their struggles. It was a chance for folks to hear what was going on from congregants from both original churches. Some people felt their church was being destroyed or taken away. Some thought Bishop Pearson’s music was too loud and energetic but then the Bishop talked about the origins of the music and how it had helped Blacks get through slavery, Jim Crow, etc. He told them how this music lifted their spirits and fueled them to get through the struggles of another week. The end result was that some from White-centric backgrounds were able to see the significance of the music and because of that, support it.

Bishop Pearson: We would have given up on this merger if Rev. Lavanhar hadn’t begun holding the regular Holy Conversations meetings. Learning how to talk to each other wasn’t easy. Tulsa is a racially tense city, particularly because the biggest U.S race massacre occurred here. Until very recently, White people haven’t talked about it because they’re ashamed and uncomfortable and Blacks have been mute because they’re still feeling the massacre’s wounds.

Rev. Lavanhar: We created racial identity groups—“Rewire” for White people, a curriculum designed to literally rewire the brain from Eurocentric thinking. Someone asked if there is “room among the woke for the waking.” What that means to me is that to have a diverse church like we now have, Whites have needed to learn as much or more about our own culture.

For people of color there’s an ongoing support group called “Shadz,” where they can talk about being a minority in a majority culture. We separated in order to have those conversations.

Bishop Pearson: When my former congregants took the pushback from White congregants about our music and style of service as being racist, I asked them, “What if the roles were reversed and All Souls was looking for a place to worship? How much would you allow them to change us? For example, how would you feel if they asked us to quiet our services and incorporate more silence?” And then they saw that the reactions they were getting from some All Souls people were simply about being accustomed to a different way of doing things.

 

All Souls Universalist Unitarian Church, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year in Tulsa, was comprised of almost entirely White congregants for most of the century, until it merged with Higher Dimensions 13 years ago.

 

Rev. Lavanhar: If I had it to do over again, I would’ve worked harder at fostering cultural awareness in the years prior. Any predominantly White church should be working consistently on White identity: Where does it come from? What does White superiority really mean? This is an education very few Whites have. We would’ve been much more prepared if we’d had this foundation of awareness in place before combining churches. Its’s one thing to be welcoming in your heart, and another to be really prepared. I also might’ve had some of the hard conversations on the front end, but I was afraid if that happened, we might not have done it. Those hard conversations might’ve made us think it wouldn’t work.

Bishop Pearson (chuckling): What we’re doing is like post-marital counseling. We skipped the premarital therapy. If I had it to do over, I would’ve had more “premarital” counseling about attitude. I’d tell them not to carry a chip on their shoulders and, just like the stares an interracial couple might receive, to wear their differences with dignity. If this is about race, then it’s a race we’re all running together. I encourage them to be less sensitive and to live up to our welcome by contributing our own culture to the experience.

Rev. Lavanhar: The first time we combined our traditional and contemporary services (at the beginning of the merger), we talked about the Jews crossing the River Jordan into the Promised Land, which transformed Israel from a wandering throng into an established nation. It was like that for us. We got our feet wet and then decided to have the faith that we were going to make it all the way across.

Bishop Pearson: For something like this to work in any organization—or city, state or country—leaders need to have the kind of vision that will carry their people through the challenges. This merger fit very much into Rev. Lavanhar’s model and the original model of All Souls.

Rev. Lavanhar: Bishop Pearson has had a vision of unified diversity for decades and created it from the inception at Higher Dimensions. We will keep evolving and doing the work—and we’re continually getting new members, Black and White, so it will always be a work in progress.

Bishop Pearson: It’s been challenging, but we are well underway.

 

*       *        *

 

The Reporters Inc. chatted with four congregants, two from each of the original congregations. Floretta Reed and Dorothy Checotah, both Black former congregants of Higher Dimensions, are seen by fellow congregants as thriving at All Souls. Jane Newman and Deanna Tirrell, both White, are seen as striving, meaning that they have an intense desire for this unification effort to succeed, and a willingness to do the necessary work, particularly on their own unconscious racial biases.

Newman and Tirrell are both highly involved members of All Souls, and have been members of the church, as well as residents of primarily White neighborhoods in Tulsa, most of their lives.

In contrast, for decades life had taken Reed and Checotah well outside the comfort zones of the homogenic communities of their upbringings, providing them with real-life diversity training. Reed’s career moved her eight times, to almost every region of the country. She not only worked, she says, in a White man’s world, but as an equal (though not often treated as such) with White male corporate leaders. Meanwhile, Checotah traveled and lived in points spanning the globe with her military husband, exposing her to just about every kind of diversity. The two women say they came out of these experiences with more open minds, thicker skin, and “fabulous” attitudes.

 

Floretta Reed, former Higher Dimensions congregant and All Souls board President the past two years, says, “I’ve found that first interactions with White congregants could be misleading, but when I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve always liked them.”

 

Floretta Reed: My spirit had always been lifted by the music at Higher Dimensions. The energy was so high at that church. When I first went to All Souls after the merger, I attended the traditional service, not knowing that the former Higher Dimensions people were at the contemporary service. I saw two Black people at the traditional service that day—out of about 400—and the traditional service wasn’t what I was looking for, particularly the music. The contemporary service, however, has the same uplifting music and high energy that I’ve always liked.

But it’s been challenging. My friends who aren’t involved in All Souls ask me why I’m attending and working (as Board President and volunteer) at a “White church,” and not using my skills elsewhere. The reason I’ve stayed at All Souls is because they’re so big on helping in the community. They’re involved in justice programs, prison outreach, feed many people every month, provide reading and mentoring to underprivileged kids, sponsor soccer teams for low-income kids, and more. Other churches in Tulsa do good works too, but not to the extent that All Souls does.

All Souls does the kinds of things I wanted to do when I retired, but initially—and still some today—they didn’t know how to act or react to people of color. It was awkward—not usually racist, just a matter of not knowing what to say and being afraid of saying the wrong thing. But sometimes it seemed it might be an issue of racism. For example, I was a greeter and every Sunday I’d say good morning to this guy as he was coming into the church, and he never said anything in response. Then one morning, over a year later, the guy finally stopped and said good morning. I don’t know what created the change in him. He’s a good guy though. We later attended a Wednesday night education class together and I found him to be very nice. I’ve found that first interactions with White congregants could be misleading, but when I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve always liked them.

I call Rev. Lavanhar out on things he does that he’s not aware of and he says “I am so blessed to have you!” He always apologizes, saying he doesn’t realize there might be racism inherent in his actions or words, and I say, “I know, that’s why I’m telling you.” It’s all very minor, but still important for him to know. For example, he has had a tendency to give more credence to those who have titles, and has sometimes disregarded the people of color, or women, directly involved with a situation. He’s worked really hard to correct that and continues to do so.

I’ll also give feedback when others do or say something racist and seem unaware of what they’re doing. I give the feedback helpfully and explain why it’s hurtful. For example, we had a class and they were talking about Blacks getting to know Whites and visa-versa. I talked to one woman and she said she didn’t know how to talk to Black people, insinuating that Blacks were somehow different, or that conversations with us were different. I told her, “You just talk to us like you’d talk to anyone else.”

 

Former Higher Dimensions Evangelical Center congregant Dorothy Checotah says, “The members of All Souls might not always get along or be the most functional, but we’re still a family. As my father used to say, ‘Whatever happens, we’re still family’.” 

 

Dorothy Checotah: I grew up in Tulsa in a mostly Black community and attended Metropolitan Baptist Church, an almost all-Black congregation. I loved my Baptist upbringing.

After marrying, I traveled the world with my military husband. When I returned to the States, I felt restless because I had changed with all the world experience, while my church had remained the same. The minister at the time encouraged me to leave, saying that he could see that I had outgrown them. This was difficult because my whole family attended there. But he knew I needed a place that helped me explore and experience more. I eventually landed at Higher Dimensions, and then when Higher Dimensions was no longer able to sustain their church building, at All Souls.

I don’t feel like I can speak for the majority of the former Higher Dimensions people, because my introduction to All Souls came about differently. I first became aware of All Souls when I was a little girl. I learned that their minister at the time was very involved in the civil rights movement. I was impressed with his passion and dedication to civil rights and was intrigued enough that I wanted to go to All Souls to see him. When I told my father this, he said that probably wouldn’t happen, because that pastor was at an all-White church, but still, I maintained a positive impression of All Souls.

After we lost Higher Dimensions, Rev. Lavanhar came to speak to us at the church where we were worshipping at the time. I talked to him after the service and he invited me to visit All Souls. I was impressed by the genuineness of his invitation. It felt real. When Rev. Lavanhar later invited our whole congregation to hold services at All Souls, I hadn’t yet been there, but I automatically felt welcome because I’d already been personally invited. However, when Bishop Carlton and Rev. Marlin announced that we were going to merge our churches, it was like those of us from Higher Dimensions were being invited to move into someone’s home and having to figure out how to make it work.

Initially there was some excitement from All Souls people about merging with us, whereas the Black congregants felt more cautious and tentative. Many of the former Higher Dimensions people didn’t feel entirely welcome—or welcome to conduct services the way they liked, anyway. We enjoyed our energetic way of celebrating God and had already lost quite a bit by losing our church. Now we were being asked to change our ways in order to accommodate being there. It wasn’t so much verbalized as a feeling. Some left for churches similar to Higher Dimensions, because that was what worked for them.

Most people at All Souls were welcoming, but some acted like “What are you doing here?” That didn’t turn me off, because I knew that if anyone had a problem with me being there, it was their problem.

What truly drew me to All Souls and has kept me there, is that it offers the freedom to expand my spiritual journey. The LGBTQ openness also impressed me, as well as the openness to different beliefs—another reason I chose to stay. My background is in counseling and social work, and I believe everyone has the right to be and celebrate who they are.

 

Longtime All Souls member Deanna Tirrell says, “Through this work, I went from seeing myself as a White savior, swooping in to fix things, to partnering and solidarity.”

 

Deanna Tirrell: The merger came about suddenly. Right as church was starting in the fall of 2008, the ministers announced, “This is what we’re thinking about doing with the church.” I saw it as an opportunity for our congregation to practice what we preach, to walk our talk about being welcoming to everyone. This was a chance to see if we could really do that. My expectations exceeded the reality, however.

I was born and raised in a small Nebraska town, and since then have worked and taught in predominantly White areas. I thought coming together was going to be all great and what we’d always dreamed of—and then I attended one of the Holy Conversations meetings. I didn’t realize there’d be challenges and issues to work out, so I was thrown by the opposition. For example, some of the established congregants said things like, “We can’t give them (meaning the Black congregants) the 10 am slot, because that’s the service that most newcomers attend.” Ouch. There was this underlying thinking that we were so magnanimous in welcoming them—a White savior kind of thing—and that the work fell to the former Higher Dimensions congregation to make the necessary adjustments. It wasn’t until I talked with Black friends that I understood the extraordinary effort they were putting in, because it took considerable time for a lot of All Souls people to realize that they had to work at it too. It takes work for people to come together.

When the merger happened, I was still involved in youth education and directing the youth choir. Initially, Black congregants weren’t putting their kids in Sunday school because they wanted to check it out and make sure it would be a positive experience—or at least not a negative experience—for their kids. It was a very different kind of Sunday school than they’d had at Higher Dimensions and a big adjustment.

As for the youth choir, the White kids were saying, “This is so cool that now we have Black kids singing with us.” I don’t recall any White kids being reluctant. The Black kids were more reluctant. They’d left a church that was very safe and diverse and were now in a church that was who knows what. I can’t imagine the courage it took, not just to come the first time, but to keep coming.

This merger has been a great experiment. We keep trying new things and revamping as we find out what works and what doesn’t.

 

Longtime All Souls member Jane Newman says, “I celebrate that we are willing to struggle and sometimes fail where others won’t tread.”

 

Jane Newman: I was raised in a progressive family. My father was a Disciples of Christ minister and Mom and Dad were both graduates of Phillips University, whose mission is to learn the way of Jesus in order to cultivate vital communities, vital conversations, and the public good. My siblings and I also attended Phillips, as well as all our spouses. I grew up thinking I wasn’t prejudiced at all, but have discovered I am. I think there’s an assumption at All Souls that since we are liberal, open-minded, progressive, and the like, how could we be unwelcoming or prejudiced? It’s sort of a White liberal “above it all” thing.

I’ve been a member of All Souls since the ‘80s. When I learned that the Higher Dimensions congregation was going to be joining us, I was so excited that we were finally going to be an integrated church. The contemporary service, where most of the former Higher Dimensions congregation attended, was so high energy, I mean high energy. The music is loud and rhythmic and goes on for a long time, and people dance, move, and shout-out supportive responses to whichever minister gives the sermon. I liked it and at the same time, it was a little overpowering for me. I had this thought that they were eventually going to “calm down and act more like us.” I didn’t even realize how White-centered that thought was. Once I began the Rewire class, I realized, “Oh my goodness, I actually thought that!”

In those early days, we had a Black minister from the East coast as a guest lecturer for the weekend. He said, “When a gay person walks into a church, they can feel whether that church has worked on getting past stereotypes about homosexuality, and getting comfortable with it. I can feel that you’ve done that work here. In the same way, a Black person can tell if the racial work has been done— and I can tell that work has not yet been done here.”

Even 12 years later, I still feel the work that needs to be done. Thankfully there are several Black congregants like Dorothy Checotah who are saying, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so you’re stuck with me.”

Combining our congregations has been a great opportunity to discover where our stumbling blocks are and where we need to improve

Floretta Reed: Two years ago, I became Board president at All Souls. Being the first Black president had its challenges. Some of the older members, especially those who are financially influential, were stand-offish at first. I think they had to absorb the fact of my role and accept it, but now I don’t feel that at all. It changed when we got to know each other in the course of dealing with each other on a business basis, and getting together in small groups to discuss church issues.

The Shadz group (the support group for people of color at All Souls) was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life, even though I’ve gone through all kinds of classes and trainings through my work. Through Shadz, I became aware of how we were emotionally scarred by racism without realizing it, because we had lived that way all our lives. I hadn’t thought anything about the way I was treated by White peers and bosses, in my over 25 years as an upper-level administrator for USPS, until the Shadz group. I wasn’t aware of the emotional and psychological toll this kind of treatment had on me, because that’s how it had always been for me.

Bridging diversity is work and it’s important that people be prepared for that. It’s also important to put biases away as much as possible and simply see the other as a human being. If you can do that, you can go a long way toward bridging the gap. Everyone has a good heart. You just have to find it.

Jane Newman: In the early days of the merger, I told Rev. Lavanhar that we needed to have inter-racial groups/dialogues and he kept saying, “We aren’t ready.” After I got involved in the Rewire group, I saw he was right. It would’ve been a huge misstep to have those deep intercultural/interracial discussions before getting well underway in the White awareness work.
My favorite new White awareness resource is a series of podcasts called “Seeing White.” The host takes you through the whole “creation” of the White race. It’s something I’m still trying to comprehend—and if you’re not familiar with the notion of a White race having been created, these podcasts are worth checking out.

I co-facilitated the Rewire class for 10 years. The course was originally based on the book Witnessing Whiteness and now also incorporates, among others, Robin D’Angelo’s book, What Does it Mean to be White, and Thandeka’s book, Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America. Thandeka is a Black author. She found out from listening to White people where racial behaviors and implicit bias come from. Shadz, for people of color, was started at the same time. Initially, Shadz used, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting together at the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, but Shadz eventually became more of an ongoing support group. In contrast, people attend Rewire only for the duration of the curriculum. After they’ve completed Rewire, they will now have a Rewire II course to take.

Rewire class is really about personal growth work. If someone isn’t willing to get uncomfortable, then they’re not going to get very far. It’s a commitment.

One thing we’ve done in Rewire classes more recently is to ask “What have you experienced lately that had racial undertones?” These are the most powerful conversations, because the person was involved in it or witnessed it. The real juice has come from looking at how the situation could’ve been handled better. To do this, we’ve used role playing. For example, I presented the class with this scenario: My dog and I were on our morning walk, and I spotted a painter, who was White, working on a house. Needing some work done at our place, I approached him for a business card. As the conversation unfolded, he recommended that I “avoid getting any Mexicans to do the work,” elaborating on his perceptions of them. I saw the turn we had taken and felt the rush of, “What do I do?” I knew I had to make it clear that I did not endorse his reality. I asked my co-facilitator to role play me, and I played the role of the painter. He and I escalated the conversation for about three minutes before bringing it in for a landing. Meanwhile, the agitation in the group’s energy was palpable.

Doing these exercises in a safe space demonstrates what is possible in real time. People start sweating and their heart rates go up doing, and even watching, the role playing. But it’s been powerful and helps people to tackle racially charged situations in a positive way when they come up again.

Deanna Tirrell: I did the Rewire class and it was my introduction to racism as a systemic problem. As I said before, I grew up in a small Nebraska town, so I had no sense at all of diversity–or of how easy I had it, relative to people of color—by simply being White. The Rewire class introduced me to what White privilege really means. I began noticing things I hadn’t before. As a teacher and school librarian, I started paying attention to how differently kids were treated based on their race, and noticed over-disciplining and over-policing of minorities from faculty, including myself at times. I made a concerted effort to maintain awareness, speak equally to everyone, and be open to different cultural norms. I see that as teachers we need to work really hard to have high expectations of all our students. I have to pay close attention to myself so that when kids of color come to the library, I don’t make assumptions about how well they read. I have to really watch myself on this, maybe because I’ve read and watched so much about the poor educations that kids receive from underserved schools.

In the early days of the merger, the leadership classes at All Souls allowed me to talk with and really get to know new Black members. It was a great back and forth conversation about understanding ourselves, our challenges and skills and how they could benefit the church. The class helped us learn to work together. But we have so much work still to do.

 

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As impassioned and committed as both leaders and members at All Souls are to creating unity amongst their diversity, solutions are often more difficult to see for those within a challenge, than for those outside that challenge. Hence the benefit of counselors and consultants.

The Reporters Inc. reached out to unification expert Bill Doherty for recommendations on the All Souls merger—and for anyone wanting to bridge differences in their lives and country.

Doherty co-founded Braver Angels, the largest organization in the country dedicated to bridging the political divide. More recently, he founded and facilitates the Police and Black Men project in Minnesota, a group of Minneapolis Police Officers and Black community members building relationships of trust to promote community safety. Doherty says, “If groups as divided as police and Black men in Minneapolis can bridge their divide, then All Souls and the former members of Higher Dimensions can certainly overcome their challenges.”

 

Unification expert Bill Doherty says, “If Black men and police in Minneapolis can bridge their differences, then All Souls can definitely do it.”

 

What most sets Doherty’s approach apart is an emphasis on relationship-building across differences, instead of training by experts. The foundation of his method is that everyone, without exception, has something to teach and something to learn. He believes that leadership for change can come from anywhere, including those seldom looked to for leadership, and that stereotypes naturally dissipate as people get to know each other.

Doherty explains, “It’s important to stay away from trying to enlighten anyone about race, theology, or anything else that creates a divide between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t.” In fact, he sees trainings outside of those geared toward relationship-building as less helpful and loaded with the possibility of backfiring.

At the core of his work is a focus on common goals that cannot be accomplished by either group alone. Doherty says, “It’s most productive when groups that are working to unify look outward toward a common goal, rather than inward on their own relationships. With this in mind, it’s easier to deal with conflict as you would in any group.”

Some at All Souls have noticed the effectiveness of this approach as well.

Floretta Reed: Things began getting better when Black congregants started attending the church’s Wednesday night education classes (during which a wide variety of topics are covered), along with the Whites. They’d break into small groups to discuss the night’s topic, and in this way, they got to know each other and thought, “Hey, I like them!”

I’ve also gone to the “Soulful Circle” groups, where the whole point of the group is about just listening intently to each other. When we really listen, we discover that we’re all the same and want the same things.

 

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Doherty also suggests that when dealing with individuals, “we need to assume good intentions unless proven otherwise, and keep in mind that everyone, without exception, is somewhere on a developmental journey on race and social change. No one has arrived at the peak of this mountain.” He adds, “Make sure there is a ‘Yes we can’ dimension to every ‘We have a problem’ discussion. Too often, matters related to race focus on historical and current deficits, without a sense that change is possible. A solution doesn’t have to be proposed right away, but hope for solutions should always be part of problem identification, along with looking for resources for that change.”

Doherty maintains that development occurs best in relationships, so encourages starting with 1:1 conversations, letting mentoring emerge as leaders come forward. He recommends adapting the Braver Angels templates for 1:1 Conversations for the congregation—or any unification endeavor.

As challenging as the merger of All Souls and Higher Dimensions has been at times, both ministers, as well as most of the congregants, continue to believe that further unity is possible. This optimism is fueled by the good they’ve recognized as coming from this merger, and the faith that more good is still to come.

Jane Newman: I celebrate that we are willing to struggle and sometimes fail where others won’t tread. I celebrate that our church looks different on the inside, and by that I mean when I walk in the door, I see White, Black, and Brown people talking, hugging, laughing, singing, just being together in the foyer. And in the services, we are singing, praying, crying, worshipping together. Our congregation is much richer than the White monoculture before the merger. And the music brought to us from Higher Dimensions has loosened us up in spite of ourselves—and that is a good thing!

Now that I have friends of color, I have deeper understanding and empathy for the pressures and prejudices they live with daily.

A benefit for some of the Black members, which I heard expressed in a setting of trust, is that they never believed there were White people who cared about them the way they were experiencing at All Souls. This was quite a revelation for me.

Deanna Tirrell: This has been an opportunity for me and others to be exposed to new perspectives and ideas, and to people who’ve had very different experiences from me. My broadened perspectives have added compassion and laughter to my life.

I would never have sought out the kind of music that Higher Dimensions prefers, but sometimes that super-emotional, wash-over-me kind of spirituality is just what I need and it’s wonderful that this is now available at our church. The traditional service has also experimented more with music than I believe they would’ve, had Higher Dimensions folks not joined us.

My Black friends seem unafraid to say things that they know might be uncomfortable for me, and don’t seem hesitant to challenge me. I interpret this as them feeling comfortable with me–at least I hope so.

Through this work, I went from seeing myself as a White savior, swooping in to fix things, to partnering and solidarity.

Floretta Reed: People have searched themselves, figured out what’s important, and decided they can do better. We have learned to be much more comfortable talking with each other, and Rev. Lavanhar has shown tremendous growth. We’ve come a long way. I am very proud of our progress and know we will continue to evolve into something even better.

Dorothy Checotah: The fact that this White church was willing to make mistakes, learn, grow, and adjust in order to be more inclusive is a wonderful thing–and those from Higher Dimensions who have stayed are doing the same. We don’t shy away from new ideas and trying new ways. Those who have stayed are finding more and more ways to be involved and feel of value—and this is something that’s definitely needed.

This is a model for a better world and the efforts that people have made are paying off. It’s more comfortable and socially warm in the church. Things still come up, but that just gives us more opportunities to learn and gain awareness. Many people now feel comfortable–or much more comfortable—talking it out and talking about race.

All Souls now feels much more like one family. Like a lot of families, we might not always get along or be the most functional, but we’re still a family. As my father used to say, “Whatever happens, we’re still family.”

 

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Although it was a devastating loss in Rev. Lavanhar’s family that initially brought him and Bishop Pearson together, that tragedy set in motion the birth of a beautiful, diverse, still-emerging, new family—a family dedicated to doing the work, making the change, learning along the way, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

 

Kim Whiting is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her on our Team page. Kim can be reached at .

 

COMMENTS

One person commented on "TWO CONGREGATIONS, ONE GOAL"
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  • Isabell VanMerlin says:

    This is a wonderful, BIG, comprehensive “article.” A great documentary that is not finished! It is so inspiring to see the willingness, that started as an offer of physical space, that became the desire to grow spiritually TOGETHER – and now 13 years later, still working on manifesting, showing, living, the ONENESS that we all are. Being a New Thought person (Divine Science Practitioner), seeing two diverse congregations coming together like this – and yes, losing some along the way (we’re here to learn/realize our perfection) – I love seeing it. And kudos to Kim for doing such a great job writing this! Thank you, Kim and The Reporters!!

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