Miss. churches embracing diversity

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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — When Pastor Brad Corban of Court Street United Methodist Church looks out into his congregation, he doesn’t see a melting pot of people.

He sees gumbo.

“A melting pot takes all its ingredients and makes just one thing, but with a gumbo, you have all your individual ingredients, but they come together to make something wonderful,” Corban said.

Providing a safe place of worship to all types of people from all walks of life, Corban said.

Court Street’s mission is to not make all of its members to be same, but to embrace the diverse makeup and differences of each member and visitor and worship God together.

That message of embracing diversity is one echoed by pastors across the Hattiesburg area.

Dan Capper, University of Southern Mississippi associate professor of religion, said there has been a unification effort made within churches in the South, but it has been a slow process.

“There is movement toward diversifying churches (in the South) but we certainly have a long way to go,” he said. “I think it’s a fairly recent movement in the last few years — a very slow movement.”

However, said Capper, the slow movement can be seen across the nation.

“But I think we are slower than some other regions at bringing about the change.

“I think that (tradition) is a very influential factor in diversity or the lack thereof. People tend to stick to their home church, and when they move, they try to find a church with the same makeup,” he said.

At Court Street United Methodist Church, Corban said the church has been moving in the direction of diversity since the late-1980s. Around that time, the church had the option to move west — the vote was overwhelmingly to stay put.

Since that time, Corban said people of all backgrounds and races have played an integral role in the church’s work and mission.

Now, Corban says about a quarter of the worship population — about 110 active members — is African-American.

“We also have Hispanic people and Eastern Europeans, and even Cajun people — there’s a lot of strong cultural distinctiveness (in our congregation),” he said.

Jeff Powell, director of worship programming at the predominantly white First (Baptist) Hattiesburg, said he has seen his church grow increasingly diverse over the past few years — both in race and in background.

“We have a good number of African-Americans who attend our church and are in leadership positions in our church, not just attending, but involved,” Powell said.

The church, which is Southern Baptist, has around 3,000 active members, three African-American deacons and several African-American teachers in its children’s, youth and college ministries.

First Hattiesburg has been around for 128 years, Powell said, but changed its primary focus and relocated to a larger facility three years ago, more than doubling the number of congregants with the change.

As the congregation grew, Powell said, so did its diversity.

“We’ve had a lot of different people come and check us out, and the racial diversity began to grow along with the people of so many different backgrounds coming to us,” he said.

Still, Powell said most of the congregants are either white or black. The few church members of other races, he said, are primarily college students.

At Hardy Street Baptist Church, the church puts a focus on diversity by providing foreign language worship and Bible study services.

Student Pastor Josh Moudy said the church offers Chinese and Spanish language services that are well attended.

Moudy said the English-speaking congregation of 500 people is about 90 percent white. He said a significant percentage of the nonwhite church members who attend services in English is of Southeast Asian descent.

Racial makeup is less varied in the foreign-language services, where Moudy said the congregation of more than 100 Spanish-speakers is almost exclusively Hispanic, while the 70 or so who attend the services in Chinese include a few white missionary families who worked in Chinese-speaking countries.

There is some overlap between the English and foreign language services, Moudy said. They have done joint worship services, and younger members of the English-speaking congregation occasionally attend the foreign language services just to see what they are like.

“They find the uniqueness of the diversity within our church very appealing,” Moudy said of the younger church members. “They’ll sometimes go to the Chinese and Hispanic service just to gain a cultural awareness of the style of worship.”

Pastors at predominantly African-American churches say they also are trying to reach out to people of other races and encourage diversity within their congregations.

The Rev. Anthony McCullum, pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Petal, said his congregation is 98 percent to 99 percent black, but that the church makes an active effort to encourage people of other races to participate in their services.

“We do have some Caucasians that attend our church,” McCullum said. “I think they’re received very well. We make an extra effort to make sure we’re open and diversified, not just racially, but with our music as well.”

For Pine Belt Community Church Pastor Brother Dan Morrow, diversity is something his congregation is striving for.

The church — which boasts a small congregation — had its first service on Aug. 1, 2011.

“We’re not quite as diverse as I think we will be,” Morrow said. “As far as race goes, all of our church members are white, but our doors are open to anyone. My hope is that we will have our threshold crossed by many different people and for us to become multiethnic. We should worship together as a community of people and not in separate pockets.”

In naming the church, Morrow said he wanted to be as general possible to not alienate any potential member of the church.

“I don’t like titles,” he said. “Most of us have a different opinion about the same name anyway. Our mission is to teach the scripture and be the body of Christ — to be Christians without being a denomination or stereotype or title — and to do our best by being honest-hearted, faithful believers.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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