2 small-town churches embrace big move
One of the Strategic Plan's guiding principles is that we are open to creative solutions and emerging truths as informed by our biblical heritage and power of the Holy Spirit. www.okumc.org/StrategicPlan
By Jeneane Jones
No one in this town can remember with certainty when Mount Vernon UMC began serving mostly black families in Crescent, population 1,411, northwest of Guthrie. But Norman Bufford, whose parents were among its founders, recalled hearing how the small building was rolled on logs down dirt roads and across pastures to the corner of North Spruce and West.
On the first Sunday of November, Bufford opened the church as usual. He checked microphones and a floorboard that threatened to snag the unsuspecting foot, convinced that he could not stop what would come next: the last worship service in the only church he’s ever known.
Eight blocks down the street, the primarily white congregation at First UMC prepared for a special morning, too.
Alan Nagel pastors both churches. On Nov. 6, he officiated in the closing service at Mount Vernon. It concluded as worshippers carried out the altar cross, candleholders, and paraments. Then they drove the half-mile to First UMC for a special Communion service with that congregation.
Now both congregations are holding their worship services at First Church.
"These are just first steps," Rev. Nagel said, "significant steps that we hope will allow us both to grow together, nurturing a God-centered community."
Some might say the Mount Vernon church building, more than 90 years old, made this unique gathering finally happen. Nagel said the deteriorating building delivered the unspoken invitation to move out a few months ago.
"We knew our church was in bad shape physically," said Mount Vernon member Anitra Dugar. "Over the years some of our members were carpenters, always willing to do something free, and they kept fixing it. Then the next generation came—some might have had hammer and toolkit, but not time or knowledge to do the kind of necessary repairs.
"This was the church I was baptized in. I’ll always consider Mount Vernon my home, but it doesn’t take a church to fall down on me to know it’s time to move on."
As a teenager, she walked past First Church every day on her way to the integrated school with all-white teachers. Those early days of integration were hard lessons learned, she said. "It was about having friends during class, and then not being able to socialize with them at the corner drugstore over a malt or shake."
But she was introduced to another type of diversity as she grew up. Dugar said all the black families in Crescent supported both black churches there, one Methodist and one Baptist. "I used to say I was Baptist two Sundays a month, and Methodist two Sundays a month," she said.
Today Dugar wishes everyone could get over the issue of race. "I know if I can fellowship with a whole different denomination, I can fellowship with people where the only difference is what I can see."
Thinking about the change made Bufford a little sad and a little wary at Mount Vernon early Nov. 6.
"I remember back in 1956, when they integrated schools here," he said. "My father was a teacher in the black school. All the black teachers were let go, and all the black students were moved to the white school. My Daddy had to travel several towns over to get another teaching job …"
Then his thoughts returned to current events. He knows some of the people at First UMC; those he knows have treated him with courtesy. But he is aware of people who didn’t want Mount Vernon members worshipping there.
First UMC member Glenda Lindholm, who set up the shared fellowship dinner that followed the special service, said discussion began about two years ago. "Our postmistress is a member of our church. We had a council meeting, and she piped up, ‘Why are there two Methodist churches in this town?’"
Her question and Nagel’s appointment to both churches framed the invitation to set a new course.
Leadership at the special services included Joseph Harris, assistant to Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. While serving as Ardmore District superintendent, Rev. Dr. Harris assisted two churches there in sharing facilities. Also speaking was Glenn Harris (not related), who chairs the Oklahoma Conference Commission on Religion & Race.
Lindholm believes it’s important for both congregations to move slowly. "I think there’s still apprehension on both parts in both churches," she said. "Maybe not in this generation, but possibly in the next generation it will come together."
Nagel said both are clear this is not a merger. "That’s an important distinction. These are two churches that will keep their separate identities." They will maintain separate boards of trustees and committees and services.
In 2010, worship attendance at Mount Vernon averaged 26 and, at Crescent UMC, 21 people, according to the Journal.
"This is a story of each with special gifts they are offering each other," Nagel noted. "Mount Vernon congregation has young and old. Kids run through the aisles and light the candles on the altar. At First United Methodist, the congregation is small and the facility large. It’s an older congregation that needs new, young lives if it is going to be vital."
Dugar summed up, "The natural looks impossible. In the Spirit world, it’s so possible. It’s about trying to get people to trust each other and trust God. The community will be looking at us."
(Jeneane Jones writes for the General Commission on Religion & Race. www.gcorr.org/taleoftwochurches )