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A Look At How Some Cleveland Churches Approach Racial Divisions

Sunday worship at Church in the Circle includes a variety of music, members represent multiple races and economic statuses and people attend the University Circle Church from inside and outside of the city. And the spirit of diversity is intentional.

“Enable people to know, ‘hey, I could find something of myself there,” said Rev. Kenneth Chalker, pastor of the church.

Chalker began working in Cleveland 30 years ago at First United Methodist Church at E. 30 th Street and Euclid Avenue.

First United Methodist Church at E. 30th Street and Euclid Avenue. [Courtesy Church in the Circle]

“The church was absolutely broken, there wasn’t anyone there really,” he said. “The vision from the very beginning was to create an urban community, an urban community that looked like the city, its diversity in its representation of cultures and experiences.”

The approach of bringing together people of different races, neighborhoods, cultures, ages and economic statuses took hold, but it didn’t come without challenges.

“There was this stereotypical image of what it meant to go downtown,” he said. “We had to get beyond that by encouraging people to give it a shot and come and see that the world is different than you may imagine.”

The steeple at Church in the Circle 

In 2010, First Church merged with Epworth-Euclid United Methodist in at E. 107 th Street and Chester Avenue. It’s now called Church in the Circle, but is also often referred to as “Church of the Holy Oil Can” in reference to its steeple.

There are other multi-racial congregations like this one in Northeast Ohio, but it’s not the norm. Many churches are more homogenous, and have been throughout history.

 “Birds of a feather flock together. In many cases that’s good, but that can also come with some challenges,” said associate professor of religion at Oberlin College, A.G. Miller.

In the basement of his home, Miller pastors a small, predominantly African-American congregation. He says racial divisions in American churches date back to the birth of the nation around the institution of slavery. Black churches emerged to meet the needs of a community not being served elsewhere.

“The black church still today is the most independent institution in black communities that doesn’t function with white control,” Miller said.

In Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, New Mount Zion Baptist Church began as a small, African-American congregation. The church rose five decades ago on E. 71 st Street after the Hough riots, as the neighborhood lost its white population leaving for the suburbs.

“I’m a product of here but there were great changes, great changes, in one’s possibilities here with all of the white flight after the riots and the lack of money being put in the infrastructure for so many decades after the riots. We still suffer from that,” said Rev. William H. Myers, pastor of New Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Most of the church members also grew up in Hough, but they now live elsewhere and drive in.

“As we all became socio-economically better and was able to choose other places that we might live for better school systems, better opportunities and whatever, we moved to other places,” Myers said.

New Mount Zion Baptist Church on E. 71st Street in Hough

Myers also started the Black Church Studies program at Ashland Theological Seminary as a branch campus located at this church. He teaches students and preaches to his congregation to respond to not just racial divisions, but all divisions.

“I’m concerned about the oppressed whoever they are. So in my classes I’m always dealing with the issues of race, issues of gender, issues of class and any other form of oppression,” he said.

Myers says churches don’t have to be diverse in makeup, but should be working with others outside of the church.

“When it comes to worship people ought to be able to go wherever they want. My problem is with the leaders of those churches that will not force their members, whoever they are, whether it’s black, whether its white, whether its Hispanic, to deal with all of the broader issues,” he said.

This can take shape in partnerships outside of the church walls.

It requires faith groups to work with other denominations and build relationships working together. These partnerships should not be missionary in approach, Miller said.

“This is not about you saving me or you helping me,” he said. “It’s about, ‘hey, I recognize my needs and my weaknesses, and I need your help to help me to become whole, to help me to be become liberated, help me to become free.’”

Both of the longtime Cleveland pastors have seen racial divisions improve in some ways and not improve in others. While their approaches to worship are not the same, they are united in seeing and grappling with the issues of today with hope for tomorrow.

This story is part of  Divided By Design, an ideastream series exploring how greater Cleveland came to be one of the nation’s most segregated metro areas.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.