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From the ashes

Church Transitions | In a county where African-American homes have been burned to the ground, black and white churches begin the healing process

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

INDIAN HEAD, Md.-On Feb. 10, Rev. Lucius Ross arrived at his small church, Smith Chapel in La Plata, Md., to find a racial epithet, the n-word, sprayed on the front door. The paint wouldn't come off, so Ross taped brown paper over it. His church was one of four places in the area that had been covered with racially offensive graffiti and swastikas. A week before, other racist graffiti appeared on two area schools.

"Can you be forgiving? Can you not become angered or embittered because of something someone has done?" Ross told me. "Christianity is the process of reconciliation."

Racism weighs heavy on the small towns of Charles County, Md. The sheriff's department has a hate crime task force, and it offered a $5,000 reward for tips on perpetrators of the graffiti. A week later, similar graffiti was sprayed on two local schools. Then, just as the sheriff charged two white men for the graffiti, more racial slurs were sprayed on the walls of another local school.

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In recent years the predominantly white communities have seen an influx of African-Americans from Washington, D.C., and Prince George's County to the north, mostly middle-class families seeking better schools and neighborhoods. The black community in Charles County has grown by 50 percent since 2000, and the majority of children in Charles County schools are black now, when five years ago they were overwhelmingly white. One city official publicly worried that the county would become crime--ridden like their neighbors to the north. The comment didn't help race relations that were already brittle.

In 2004, five white men burned more than two dozen homes in an African- American neighborhood in the county-arson that many believed to be racially motivated. In neighborhoods in one town nearby, Indian Head, someone distributed racist fliers following the fires.

But that year, before all the fires, local church leaders had already seen the racial barriers within their own congregations and decided to try a radical solution to reconcile the black and white communities-worship together. "Risk-taking," said George Hackey Jr., a black pastor in the coalition. "That's one of the things churches have to do."

The pastors said they were uncertain about what they were doing at first-styles didn't jibe and the cultures of the black and white churches just didn't meld. But since then, the coalition of 10 Charles County churches, half of them black, half of them white, has joined together every year during Lent. On Wednesday nights, the churches meet together for a service and on Sundays, pastors switch churches-a white pastor will preach to a black congregation, and a black pastor will preach to a white congregation.

Church leaders believed that they might be able to change the pattern of racism in their county and show gospel-driven forgiveness to their communities at the same time. "The worship-it helped put us on equal ground," said Ross.

But change comes slowly. Many in Washington and its exurbs like Charles County thought the election of Barack Obama to the presidency signaled a big step forward in race relations. Hate crimes-Ku Klux Klan markings on African-American churches, for example-seemed relegated to the 1950s. But racial intimidation is still a part of life in towns like Indian Head and La Plata, where Ross' church is. Still, locals have provided tips to the sheriff's department that have helped apprehend many behind the crimes. Ross thinks their community isn't especially unusual.

"When you talk about race in America, it's the same everywhere," said Ross. "The inability to sit down and discuss, the stereotypes, the basic fear of the unknown."

Indian Head, Md., looks like a lot of towns in America: 4,000 people live here, in a county of 140,000. Kids play soccer together in a neighborhood in the evenings. The town is on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, and a Navy base is located nearby. Local barbecue places line Highway 210, the road that connects most of the churches in the coalition. One church along 210, Indian Head United Methodist Church, sits snugly between small homes in a neighborhood, under the shadow of a water tower. On a Wednesday night, people pour into the small building.

It's been more than a month since the graffiti incident at Smith Chapel, in the middle of Lent, a traditional time when many Christians practice self-denial and repentance leading up to Easter. The Lent service at Indian Head UMC was brimming with people from the coalition churches. Black ladies wearing white gloves and long black skirts ushered in congregants, offering a "holy hug" to people as they came in.

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