As Topeka — and the nation as a whole — grapples with race relations, leaders of three local Southern Baptist churches say their congregations are showing what can be done when people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups come together and share the same building.
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Journey Church and New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church are all meeting in the Emmanuel church building at 1329 S.W. 37th.
In recent months, Emmanuel Baptist Church has been holding its services jointly with Journey Church at 10:10 a.m. Sundays. Both churches are primarily white in membership.
New Beginning Baptist Church — which is a predominantly black congregation — holds its worship service in the same sanctuary at 11:30 a.m. Sundays.
Emmanuel Baptist owns the building, but the congregation had dwindled to about two dozen people a few years ago. Some left the church after the Internal Revenue Service threatened to seize the building after a flap regarding unpaid taxes that were incurred by a daycare center that was operated out of the church building a number of years ago. The IRS issue still hasn’t been resolved.
Gary Roten recalled giving a sermon about three years ago, shortly after he was named interim pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church.
“I walked over to the window in the sanctuary and pointed outside,” Roten said. “I told them there were people across the street who needed salvation, who needed Jesus. They could sit here and feel sorry for themselves about what the IRS was doing, or they could do something in the community.”
It wasn’t long before the church found itself reaching out to the community, inviting another congregation to share its building.
Roten had known the Rev. Cecil T. Washington Jr., pastor of the New Beginning church, from the 1990s, when Roten was pastor of Maranatha Baptist Fellowship in Topeka. Both congregations had worshiped together on occasion.
Washington’s church for more than a decade had been meeting in an old Air Force base chapel at Forbes Field.
Then, about three years ago, the rent was dramatically increased at the chapel. At that point, Washington and his church began looking for another place to meet.
Washington called the Flint Hills Baptist Association — which is part of the Kansas-Nebraska Southern Baptist Convention — to see if any buildings might be available. Richard Taylor, director of missions for the Flint Hills association, suggested Washington call Roten to see if the Emmanuel church could help.
That led to New Beginning coming to Emmanuel in February 2015. The New Beginning church continues to meet there.
Another congregation — Journey Church — also was looking for a place to meet. The church previously had gathered for Sunday services in storefronts at different locations on Topeka’s west side.
The church reached out to Emmanuel Baptist, and in March 2016, Journey Church began to meet in the same building with the other two congregations.
None of the three churches would be considered large by Topeka standards, making it possible for all to share the same space.
The pastors acknowledge there have been some growing pains and challenges, particularly with regard to logistics and meeting times and sharing the same space.
But for the most part, the pastors say members of the congregations are understanding and extend “grace” to others, avoiding conflicts that pit one church against another.
“I don’t think it’s been perfect,” said Mark Leenerts, pastor of Journey Church. “I think we’ve rubbed each other wrong on occasion. But we’ve never been so mad with each other that we’ve wanted to leave. We’re learning to work with each other. We all jumped into the same pool and figured out how to swim together.”
In spite of the imperfections and challenges of having three congregations converging at the same location, Leenerts said he was encouraged that things have gone as well as they have: “At least we’re moving forward,” he said.
Attendees have gotten to know each other and speak cordially with each other as they pass by between Sunday morning services — as one church leaves and another one comes into the sanctuary.
In spite of the three churches meeting in the same building at the same time, however, the congregations continue to conduct services apart from each other. The mostly white congregations worship together, followed by the mostly black congregation holding worship services.
Washington attributed much of that to “cultural” dynamics, rather than simply racial ones. Members of his church are accustomed to worshiping with a certain style. The same goes for Emmanuel Baptist and Journey Church.
Could it be that the churches one day will get together to worship at the same time, and break new ground as a predominantly black church and mostly white church come together in the truest sense of the word?
Leenerts, Washington and Roten seem open to the idea, but all believe it hinges on the members of the various churches demonstrating a kind of “spiritual maturity” that would be needed to pull it off.
Roten said the churches all agree on important “doctrinal” matters but conceded they do have different ways of worshiping.
Then there is the matter of finances — and figuring out a way to take an offering so the three congregations can keep their ministries afloat.
It is a work in progress, the pastors say, as they cut across cultural and racial lines. In spite of acknowledging they have “a long way to go,” they say they are probably much farther along in this regard than most churches in Topeka.
Roten said he sees this arrangement — which he believes God has orchestrated — as a chance for the three churches to send a visible message to the city of Topeka, showing how Christians can demonstrate unity in the midst of diversity.
“The Lord said he wanted us to all be one,” Roten said. “As Christians, we talk about being one. But I think you see here that we’re walking it— we’re not just talking it. And I praise the Lord for that.”
Washington said the churches have been able to work together because of “a four-letter word: ‘l-o-v-e.’”
Washington noted in God’s view, there isn’t a “black church” or a “white church,” but just the “church.”
“When the Lord comes back,” Washington said, “he’s only coming after one church. We want to do everything we can to exemplify that unity in the church. There are all kinds of divisions in the world. To see people come together — it can only be done in Christ.”
Contact Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/