Baptist churches branching out

Fifty years ago, Reverend Eric Porterfield, who is white, wouldn't have lead the congregation of the historically black Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. He might not have even walked through the door. "Probably it was in college that I first attended services in an African American church," said Reverend Porterfield, who is 40 and grew up in Greensboro. He's now lead Pastor at historically white Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington. "We didn't go to their church, they didn't come to our church," said Macedonia Reverend Terry Henry. "That was unheard of." The Baptist church has been a dominant religion in the south. It's also one of the few social institutions that's remained segregated in the post-civil rights era. "We all came together in this great melting pot on Mondays--Monday through Friday--but then on Sunday everyone went to their separate churches," said Reverend Dr. John Brown of New Hope Freewill Baptist Church in Leland. It's not a matter of segregation as much as one of tradition. In the African American community in particular, the church has evolved into more than just a place of worship. "It has been a place where we can share our ideas, talk about things that have been going on in our community," Reverend Henry said. "There's a strong social connection," said Macedonia Member Ken Weeden. "That in some ways is stronger than religion, the cultural part. This is my church, my grandfather's church, my mother's church." Experts say that's the case throughout much of the south, where baptists and methodists have outnumbered other faiths for more a century. But in Wilmington, where different religions exist side by side, all have to be progressive. "Certainly there have been times in the south where Baptists and Methodists were the cultural powerhouses," said UNCW history and religious studies professor Walter Conser. "That cultural establishment was challenged more easily in Wilmington because of this religious diversity. That is a pattern that continues into the twentieth century and twenty first century." On a recent Sunday, Reverend Terry Henry of Macedonia Baptist church switched with Reverend Eric Porterfield. Each lead the other's service in an effort to bring their congregations closer together. The two are an example of many Baptist churches in the area that are changing old traditions in order to appeal to a larger and more diverse community. "We have some caucasian members that have joined in the past few years, I have a Hispanic friend who preached for us a few years ago and I hope implement some type of worship services that will actually be targeted towards everyone, blending relationships and ethnicities," Reverend Henry said. But after more than one hundred years of tradition, the transition is not easy. "The obstacles that we are facing are internal," Reverend Henry said. "You've got those persons who are stuck in yesterday and think we're becoming too modern and growing too fast and then you've got this younger, modern group who welcomes change." "You gotta almost be a coach to get the two teams within your own congregation to play on the same playing field," Reverend Henry said. "We tend to want to go among like people and be among people of our kind," said Macedonia member George Syles. "Times have to change, you know. This is the 21st century. There's no way we can sill live in the 19th or 20th century." "I think we're going to pass through a major shift within the next 10 years," Reverend Henry said. "I think our youth is going to show us another face, I think they're going to start looking for newer things."

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WHO GIVES A FLYING FALWELL?
Sundays have been a long standing day of voluntary segregation, it's good to see some congregations figure out we are all gods children.