Home Christian News Racial Unity Still a Focus Years After N.C. Church Merger

Racial Unity Still a Focus Years After N.C. Church Merger

Refuge Church
Congregation members worship at The Refuge Church in Kannapolis, N.C., on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. More than five years after a Black congregation merged with a mostly white North Carolina church, members of the church continue to want to be an example of unity and racial reconciliation in the American South. (AP Photo/Aron Ranen)

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) — Troy Savage says Martin Luther King Jr.’s decades-old criticism of the racial divide in the U.S. church still rings true today.

“It’s been said that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11 … it’s true,” said Savage, adding that people of different races, ethnicities and cultures regularly work and socialize together. “And then on Sunday morning, we do this — we go our separate ways.”

But Savage does not think it has to stay that way. He and his family of four, who are African American, attend The Refuge Church just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. It is one of the churches trying to diversify Sunday mornings in America.

“When we think about racial reconciliation, really our goals should be to do what Jesus wanted us to do, which was to be one — to be unified,” said April Savage, his wife. “That’s really what The Refuge is trying to do. They want to bring together people … where we’re not just existing in the same church, but we’re celebrated in the same church.”

In November 2016, The Refuge Church, a mostly white multisite congregation, merged with a predominantly Black church and hired its pastor, the Rev. Derrick Hawkins, to its ministry staff. The Rev. Jay Stewart, the lead pastor of The Refuge Church, and Hawkins, who is now one of the executive pastors, detailed the merger in the book, “Welded: Forming Racial Bonds That Last.”

“A part of our purpose is be a demonstration of unity, a demonstration of racial reconciliation in a nation that has been so divided for way too long. And we get the privilege of walking out this purpose,” Stewart said.

Over the last two decades, the ethnic diversity of U.S. congregations has grown, the 2021 National Congregations Study states. Predominantly Black congregations continue to account for about 20%, but the proportion of predominately white congregations in America has shrunk although the minority presence within those has grown, the study states.

About 15% to 20% of those who worship at The Refuge Church’s Kannapolis campus are African American, said Stewart, who considers that increase in the congregation’s diversity a big success.

“It’s a challenge in the South to see what you saw today — that’s a huge challenge,” Stewart said on a recent Sunday. “Six years ago, you would not have seen that here, but today you saw diversity that’s trending in the right direction.”

Decades have passed since civil rights activists desegregated lunch counters across the Jim Crow South and a landmark federal voting rights act went into law. Today, race relations in North Carolina continue to be impacted by national policy debates and state political fights ranging from how police treat Black people to what students are taught about Black history to disputes over gerrymandering and voting rights.

On a recent Sunday at The Refuge Church’s Kannapolis campus, a band played contemporary Christian songs, and worshippers — Black and white — grasped their hands in prayer and a steady stream of churchgoers were summoned to the stage for spiritual healings.