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From the ashes

"From the ashes" Continued...

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

"Bind us together, Lord, bind us together," the congregation sang.

Whites and blacks sat in pews together, a roughly even number of each. A white choir sang, holding on the word "Glo-----ry," and the piano bass notes interjected a grandiose ending, "Dum, dom, dum, dom, dum." Everyone clapped, even though the choir was small and warbled. A white pastor named Rob Carter from another local church stood to deliver the sermon.

"Jesus Christ-that's where we find warmth from the winter," he said, to a chorus of "yeses" and "amens." "Lent-it starts with the frost and ends with Easter." The churches have a theme for their Lent services this year, from Thomas Paine's words that were read to U.S. troops at Valley Forge: "In the depth of winter, hope and virtue survive."

Carter spoke about the winter many are experiencing through the loss of a job, loss of a loved one, or spiritual struggles. People nodded and affirmed him. Afterwards, some of the black congregants chatted about the white pastor, "That was good! He did all right!" Carter, the pastor, said his all-white congregation loves the Lent services-though they wouldn't have 30 years ago.

The service exposed moments of awkwardness between the two communities, too. The white pianist played hymns ever so slowly; some black women in the pews tried to sway to the music, but the pace made it impossible. Jacques Banks, a black pastor at the Indian Head church, confessed laughingly before the service that he has some "ethnic tendencies" in the way he preaches that startled his white listeners. "I've adapted, and they've adapted, and God has blessed us," he said.

Ladies after the service planned a fish fry together for later, and the pastors planned their next meeting at a local restaurant. They meet together every few months. Relationships are there that weren't there before the coalition began, but most of the congregants at the Lent service were older, and most of those involved with hate crimes like graffiti are younger, usually teenagers.

The crimes are something Ross doesn't want to talk about-even when he's speaking privately, away from white pastors. He refrains from describing details of anything that happened, changing the topic to what is happening in his church right now. But he acknowledges the history is there. Ross is part of the Methodist church, as are all the pastors participating in their coalition, a church that enforced segregation until the late 1960s. And after all the time together during Lent, most of the churches in the coalition have maintained their segregated makeup during the rest of the year.

The Charles County government set up a "commission on diversity and inter-group relations" to build unity between blacks and whites, but pastors like Ross see true healing and forgiveness coming through the gospel.

"As messed up as I've been in my life, not only has God seen fit to forgive me, but he's allowed other people to forgive me for my wrongs," Ross said. "So I can't do any more than extend forgiveness and patience and love to someone else who may not have experienced those type of things. Maybe they have not had the opportunity to hear the good news. Hopefully they can look at us and see it."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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