Methodist church affirms people from different races
Published Feb 17, 2002
The mix of black, white and brown faces might be the first thing you notice upon entering Park Avenue United Methodist Church. The blend of hues and histories didn't come about by accident. It's been carefully -- and at times painfully -- nurtured.
The south Minneapolis church has become a magnet for people interested in worshiping in an environment that reflects the larger community. And it's become a haven for interracial couples and families looking for a place where they can simply be the Johnsons or the Nixons or the Raineys, instead of a novelty.
When Lee and Kathy Rainey of Plymouth discovered Park 21 years ago, they felt their prayers had been answered. The church was not as soulful as the black Pentecostal churches Lee was used to, nor was it as restrained as the white Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist churches Kathy was accustomed to attending. But it felt like a good place to put down roots.
"The warmth was just so unique," Kathy Rainey said. "And for the kids to look around and see other [biracial] kids who looked like them was awesome."
So they drove in from the western suburbs to attend services on Sundays as well as other events during the week. The church became a central part of the Raineys' life.
An 'open church'
As south Minneapolis, particularly the Central neighborhood, began to attract more black families in the 1950s and '60s, many of the white families in the area began to move out of the city. Rather than packing up and following them to the suburbs, Park, under the leadership of the Rev. C. Philip Hinerman, decided to embrace the change. To underscore Park's commitment, he posted a sign outside the building at 3400 Park Av. S. that declared it "an open church for everyone."
While a number of Park's families were willing to welcome new faces, many quit as black families joined. Membership dipped, but Hinerman stayed the course. In the late '60s, with the energy and vision of a new youth pastor, Arthur Erickson, Park began building ties to neighborhood families through their children.
"A significant number of people shared the vision for reaching the neighborhood, and so they really supported the youth programs," said the Rev. Mark Horst, who today is Park's lead pastor.
In time, Park's membership rolls swelled again and the church evolved into a place where black and white, rich and poor worshiped side by side. Today, more than 1,200 people attend the church each Sunday.
The church's commitment to social justice issues and to welcoming its neighbors was also a draw, Kathy Rainey said.
"You're shoulder to shoulder at the prayer rail, praying with them and for them," she said.
And such shared experiences provide an opportunity to form new friendships, several members said.
"We're really reaping the harvest from a process that was begun back in the late '60s," Horst said. "Those of us who are there kind of caught a moving train."
Transforming the church wasn't simply a matter of adding a few black and brown faces to the congregation. The singing, the praying and the preaching all changed to reflect the church's new and emerging composition.
"It's not just opening the doors, it's rearranging the furniture," said Horst, who is white. The church's other two pastors are black men, and all three offer different styles of preaching.
For Van and Kathy Nixon, who've also attended Park for more than 20 years, getting there on Sundays hasn't meant spending 20 to 30 minutes on the highway. The south Minneapolis residents were drawn to the church because it met their spiritual needs and was still more supportive than what they encountered in their neighborhood or their children's schools.
"It's so deliberately inclusive of all groups of people -- in every way," said Kathy Nixon, who is white. "Not just racially, but socioeconomically, and urban and suburban. Everyone's there. There was no questions about whether we'd be accepted at a church like Park Avenue."
It was a place where their biracial children weren't pressured to prove they were black enough to hang out with the other kids, they said.
And it was a place where Kathy Nixon, who was ostracized by her South Dakota family for marrying a black man, was able to build lifelong friendships.
"Our families have grown up loving each other and supporting one another's children," Kathy Rainey said of the Nixons and other multiracial Park families.
Park is one of about a dozen multiracial churches in the Twin Cities -- churches where at least 20 percent of the congregation is something other than the dominant racial group -- according to Curtiss DeYoung, a member of Park who is writing a book about multiracial congregations.
"There's always tension when you bring people together who are experiencing life differently due to race," he said. "It's harder work, trying to understand someone else's experience and how it's shaped them."
Because Park remains a place that embraces change -- it recently added a bilingual service to cater to the burgeoning number of Spanish speakers in the neighborhood -- it continues to attract and lose people.
And, while the hardest days are behind it, the difficult conversations and decisions continue.
"Being an intentionally diverse congregation means you've got to talk about your differences," Horst said. "It means you've got to welcome the differences."
Those hard discussions in and beyond Park have made life richer, Lee Rainey said.
"We've had the blessing of being able to penetrate the others' community," he said.
-- Duchesne Paul Drew is at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-7111.
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