|June 4, 2000
Shared Prayers, Mixed Blessings
Integration Saved a Church.
Then the Hard Work Began.
By KEVIN SACK
About This Series
DECATUR, Ga. -- Howard Pugh, head usher, is on
patrol. May the good Lord have mercy on any child,
or adult for that matter, who dares to tread across the
lobby of the Assembly of God Tabernacle with so
much as an open Coca-Cola in his hand. Because first he will get
the look, the alert glare of a hunting dog catching its first scent of
game. Then he will get the wag, the slightly palsied shake of the
left index finger. And then the voice, serious as a heart attack and
dripping with Pensacola pinesap: "Son, this is the Lord's house.
And they just shampooed that carpet last week."
It goes without saying that Howard Pugh knows what is going on
in his lobby. So when Mr. Pugh, a white man with a bulbous pink
nose, spots 81-year-old Roy Denson slipping out of the sanctuary,
he doesn't even have to ask. He just knows. He knows because he
has seen Mr. Denson flee the 10:30 service time and again, and it
is always when one of the choir's black soloists moves to center
This time it is Robert Lawson, a soulful tenor with a fondness for
canary-yellow suits. As he begins to sing, the Pentecostal faithful
gradually rise. First a few black members clap and sway. Then
more join in. Finally, the white members are moved to stand, and
before long the 2,000-seat sanctuary is washed over with
harmony. Stretching their arms toward the heavens, the
congregants weave a tapestry of pinks and tans and browns.
But to Mr. Denson's ears, Mr. Lawson's improvisational riffs sound like so much screeching
and hollering. And so he sits there seething, thinking about how he joined this church 56 years
ago, how he followed it from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, how he hung the Sheetrock
with his own hands, and how the blacks are taking over and the whites are just letting it
He gets angrier and angrier, listening to these boisterous black folks desecrate his music, until
he simply cannot bear it. "I ain't sitting there and listening to that," he mutters on his way out.
"They're not going to take over my church."
And there waiting for him is Mr. Pugh, at 65 another white man of his generation, always with
the same smart-alecky question. Never mind that Mr. Pugh and his wife, Janice, have
themselves become uneasy about the direction of their church, that they have been quietly
contemplating a walk of their own. "Now, Roy," Mr. Pugh begins, stroking his seafarer's
beard, "what are you going to do when you get to heaven? Walk out of there, too?"
Back inside, the ecstatic singing has ended, the speaking in tongues has melted into a chorus of
hypnotic whispers and the members of the Tabernacle have been invited to roam the sea-foam
carpet, welcoming visitors and greeting one another.
They embrace, the white people and the
black people, with long, earnest hugs.
Eletia Frasier, a Guyanese immigrant,
kisses all who come her way, whether
she knows them or not. Brad Jackson
wraps his thick white arms around
Eugene Glenn, a slender black man, and
jerks him cleanly off the ground.
Ruben Burch, a 6-foot-7 black man
whose blue usher's blazer is a tad short
in the sleeves, saunters down the aisle
with an irrepressible grin. During the
Sunday fellowship, Mr. Burch makes a
point of approaching older whites to
gauge acceptance. Will they offer hugs,
or merely handshakes? Will they linger,
Halfway down the aisle, he encounters
Madge Mayo, the spry 85-year-old widow of a pastor from the Tabernacle's segregated days.
She stands 4-foot-9 and keeps her luminescent white hair in a tight bun.
There was a time when Mrs. Mayo could never have imagined hugging a black man, and even
now she is not sure she approves of the integration of her church. But she has been touched by
the bigheartedness of the Tabernacle's black members. And like so many of the whites who
have stayed, she reasons that all believers are going to the same heaven, so they might as well
get used to one another right here on earth.
Mrs. Mayo sees Mr. Burch heading her way and trots a few steps toward him in her shiny
black pumps. They smile fondly, and he bends at the waist to embrace her. She pats Mr. Burch
on the back and presses her cheek against his, passing his test.
It is a moment that would probably chafe some of his relatives, who feel that he and his wife,
Vanessa, are compromising their blackness by attending "the white church." But the Burches
feel blessed by the blendedness of the Tabernacle.
"Man," Mr. Burch reflects later, "30 or 40 years ago I would have been hung for just touching
Praying Side by Side
Sixteen miles east of downtown Atlanta, a vast granite monolith known as Stone Mountain
looms over DeKalb County. Up on that mountain in 1915, the 20th-century Ku Klux Klan was
born. And virtually in its shadow, the Tabernacle, all brick and glass and sharp angles, sits
along Interstate 285 in the thick of the Atlanta sprawl.
Nearly 50 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. scolded Christians for making 11 a.m. Sunday the
most segregated hour of the week, the Tabernacle is
the rarest of religious institutions: a truly integrated
church in a nation where 90 percent of all
congregations are at least 80 percent one race. It is, to
many of its 800 members, a slice of heaven on earth,
a church whose spirituality is magnified by its
multiracial character. What better evidence of God's
presence, they reason, than the sight of whites and
blacks praying side by side?
And yet, the Tabernacle is not some liberal church like
the one nearby that took down its white stained-glass
Jesus and replaced him with a black one. It is deeply
conservative, socially and theologically. What draws
the Pughs and the Burches and so many others is the
intensity of their Pentecostal faith, which teaches that
the Holy Spirit can move in the lives of all believers,
regardless of background.
Pastor Roger W. Brumbalow's mission statement, displayed prominently in the lobby,
challenges the congregation "to be a multiracial, multicultural maturing body of believers," and,
indeed, the church is blended in almost every way. Fifty-five percent of the members are
white, 43 percent are black and the rest are Asian or racially mixed. Perhaps a third of the
blacks are foreign born, and the church flies 36 flags to honor their homelands.
The Tabernacle has had trouble integrating its eight-member pastoral staff, a legacy of the
Assembly of God's history as a white denomination. Its first black associate pastor resigned
last fall after two years. Over the last 13 months, Pastor Brumbalow, who is white, filled two
openings with white associate pastors before finally hiring a black youth pastor last month. The
board of deacons, by contrast, has been integrated since 1994 and became majority black after
elections in March.
The choir is thoroughly mixed, and its praise-and-worship-style music falls comfortably
between the traditional country hymns of white Pentecostalism and the thumping gospel funk
of the modern black church. Pastor Gary Smith, the music minister, jokes that his choir would
be faultless "if we could just get the whites to clap on time and just get the blacks to be on
The congregation does not mix only in the pews. Blacks and whites visit each other in the
hospital, share motel rooms at retreats and attend potluck dinners at one another's homes. They
come together in kitchens and living rooms, forming circles of prayer around an ailing old man
or a hopeful young couple, then laying hands on the supplicants' foreheads and shoulders.
Visiting one another's suburban homes, with their manicured lawns and large-screen TV's,
these accountants and teachers, nurses and software consultants discover the common threads
of their middle-class lives.
Yet for all the utopian imagery, for all the hope and faith that the congregation has moved
beyond race, the life of the church is still driven by race in countless ways.
Most everyone has made accommodations of some kind. The whites, mostly native
Southerners, have been forced to confront their racial assumptions and cede some control over
church governance and liturgy. The blacks have ventured from the safe harbor of the
African-American church and, in many cases, have suppressed lifetimes of racial resentment
The little compromises can be detected any Sunday. They show in the frustration of some black
members with the regimentation of the morning service, which opens with exactly 30 minutes
of singing and usually lasts precisely two hours.
"There are times when we're praising God and then they just cut it off," complains Robert
Lawson. "You can't do that. You can't put God in a box."
Some whites, meanwhile, dart glances at black churchgoers who they feel may be worshiping
too exuberantly. They search for delicate words to explain.
"In a lot of cases, the blacks are really more committed," says John F. Kellerman, a former
"More outgoing," agrees his wife, Grace.
"Where the whites are more reserved, you know," he says.
Behind such concerns, though, is the question at the heart of the Tabernacle's future: Is the
church simply enjoying a fleeting moment of integration on the way to becoming
predominantly black? With the church growing rapidly and blacks joining at twice the rate of
whites, the Tabernacle could tip, like those neighborhoods where blacks move in and whites
The Tabernacle is a work in progress. But how far is it willing to go? And how much are the
Burches, the Pughs and the others willing to concede in order to realize St. Paul's declaration
that "you are all one in Christ Jesus"?
Making 'Colored' Friends
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in January, a racially
mixed crowd gathers at Howard and Janice Pugh's
house for a catfish feast. They segregate quickly, of
course. The men decamp to the garage,
handicapping the Super Bowl and admiring Mr.
Pugh's skill with the deep-fat fryer. The women
settle in the sun room, swapping tales about the cold
snap and the flu bug.
When the group comes together for dinner, everyone
laughs knowingly at Eugene Glenn's stories about
his 16-year-old daughter's interest in buying a car
and lack of interest in finding a job. Before long, the
joshing turns to the male love affair with the channel
changer and, eventually, to Mr. Pugh's vigilance in
the church lobby. The guests tease their host about
how he was spotted letting the youth pastor's wife
cross the carpet with an open can of soda.
"You're slipping, Howard," taunts William Turner, a black deacon.
"Yeah," he chuckles, "I'm getting soft."
As much as anyone, the Pughs have been transformed by the church's integration. Having
lived most of their lives with little exposure to blacks, and little interest in gaining any, they
now count blacks from the church among their closest friends.
"My feeling before I got to know them was that there really wasn't that many good blacks out
there," Mr. Pugh explains. "After being around them and working with them, shoot, I don't
even think about them as colored anymore."
Of course, Mr. Pugh's "colored" friends would prefer he use a synonym. But in his mind, his
choice of words marks some progress. "Hey, I've come a long way," he says. "I don't say
"That's right," his wife chimes in, "they should see where you've come from."
Where they both came from were country churches in the piney woods of northwest Florida.
When Howard was an infant, his mother would slide him under the bench so he wouldn't get
trampled while they danced in the spirit. Janice was abandoned by her parents and raised by a
grandmother who enforced a strict Pentecostal code: no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no
makeup, no short pants.
They found each other 21 years ago via CB radio and began courting over a cup of truck-stop
coffee. Mr. Pugh, a widower, could be gruff as an Alabama trooper. But he was also giving
and good-hearted and a fine provider. She was pretty and sweet and recently divorced. She
kept a Christian household and had no problem letting her husband be head of it. Even today,
she cooks and cleans and lays out his clothes.
"All he has to do is put them on," she says, rolling her eyes.
"Yeah," he grins, sunk into his recliner, his toy poodle, Pepe, in his lap, "all them guys at the
church comes up to me and says, 'Boy, your wife dresses you nice.' "
After working for years in pulp mills, Mr. Pugh brought his bride to Atlanta 19 years ago and
started a lucrative business pouring concrete in the ever-expanding suburbs. With its sizable
black middle class and political structure, the city was a shock.
The Pughs had come up in a strictly segregated culture. Mr. Pugh remembers having little
childhood exposure to blacks, and during the civil rights movement he couldn't figure out what
all the fuss was about. As far as he could tell, blacks had the same opportunities as he and
other poor whites, even if they did have their own neighborhoods and schools.
"I just wanted to stay on my side of the fence and for them to stay on theirs," he says. "I never
abused them. But they pretty much knew that I was white and they were niggers and we just
ran our own way."
Mrs. Pugh, 46, says she was never taught prejudice but recalls her grandmother's warning to
avoid the black side of town. Her view of black men, she says, came from movies that
portrayed them "raping a white woman or something."
In Atlanta, she had to confront her fears. "You'd turn the TV on and it's a black mayor and a
black city council," she says. "I'd say: 'Howard, where did you bring me? Are there any white
people here?' "
When the Pughs joined in 1992, the Tabernacle was perhaps 10 percent black. They had never
worshiped with blacks before. But the black folks tended to sit on the right side of the
sanctuary, separated from the whites by a demilitarized zone of empty pews. "We came at a
good time," Mrs. Pugh recalls. "There weren't so many of them that it was overwhelming. We
The Burden of Blending In
Last year, Ruben and Vanessa Burch moved into a new house with an orange-brick facade in a
subdivision that is perhaps a third white. Determined to raise their two daughters in an
integrated setting, the Burches had been impressed while house hunting that white neighbors
had waved to them, a black couple, from their lawns.
A week after the Pughs' fish fry, many of the same couples gathered for a house-blessing
dinner at the Burches'. To the strumming of a guitar, the crowd welcomed the Holy Spirit into
the airy two-story home. "Come in today, come in to stay," they harmonized, "come into my
house, Lord Jesus."
Vanessa Burch, tall, slender and poised, handed out cups of olive oil, and the blacks and
whites anointed doorknobs, bedposts and televisions with slick smudges of oil. The ceremony
ended when the Burch family -- Ruben, Vanessa, 12-year-old Jessica and 7-year-old Gabrielle
-- huddled in the center of the living room and surrendered to the prayers of their friends. The
guests gave them a wall plaque, and little Gabby haltingly read, "May the Lord bless this home
and keep you in the company of angels." Then spaghetti was served.
Like most black Southerners of their generation, the Burches have experienced their share of
racism. Mr. Burch, 46, grew up in Albany, Ga., a stronghold of resistance to the civil rights
movement. His wife, 40, grew up in Blakely, a south Georgia town whose high school still
has separate homecoming queens and class reunions.
Both remember "colored only" water fountains and parental warnings not to be caught on the
white side of town after dark. Mrs. Burch still recalls the indignity of hearing white children
call her mother by her first name. And then there was the day, perhaps 15 years ago, when her
white boss in a South Carolina bank informed her that the one thing he hated was an "uppity,
"It almost knocked me to my knees," says Mrs. Burch, then a teller at the bank. "I walked off
and went into the restroom and cried because it hurt me so bad."
The Burches reacted to all this in different ways. Mr. Burch, happy-go-lucky and confident to
a fault, says he never grew deeply bitter. His mother shielded him from the worst affronts, and
when his high school integrated, he saw it as an opportunity to date white girls, discreetly.
"You knew how far to take it," he says. "I mean, you wouldn't walk down Broadway holding
Mrs. Burch was more defiant. When her school desegregated, her white classmates learned
that anyone who tossed a racial epithet her way was liable to go home with bruises. At age 12,
she dressed down a white woman who had scolded her sick mother for sitting in the white
section of a doctor's waiting room. "After that," she says, "Mama didn't take me too many
times to the doctor's office."
Their experiences left both Burches, though, with a strong understanding that their world
would be multiracial, and that schooling, diction and personality would be important tools in
getting ahead. Those lessons were reinforced in the Navy, where Mr. Burch spent 22 years as
In 1996 they moved to Atlanta, where he found work inspecting commercial waste-water
systems. They looked for an Assembly of God church and found the Tabernacle, then about 30
percent black. Before long they were fully involved, he as an usher, she as a Sunday school
teacher and both as scout leaders.
"I liked the diversity," says Mrs. Burch, an administrative assistant for a computer company.
"I wanted my children to grow up with differences in a church so they could see that whenever
they went to heaven it wasn't going to be all black and it wasn't going to be all white. It was
going to be mixed."
A 'Walk With the Lord'
When the Tabernacle was founded, in
1916, it was most definitely not mixed.
And it remained that way through most
of its history, moving twice to escape the
migration of blacks into its
neighborhood. In the 1940's it affiliated
with the Assemblies of God, a
historically segregationist Pentecostal
denomination. But ultimately, the church
could outrun neither the changing
demographics of postsegregation Atlanta
nor some stark fiscal realities.
Shortly before the Pughs arrived, an
unmanageable mortgage put the
congregation in debt. To dig out, the
church called as its senior pastor Coy
Barker, a onetime rodeo rider, and
agreed to pay him 25 percent of tithes
and offerings. With a financial incentive to fill the pews, Pastor Barker tapped the most readily
available market -- the middle-class blacks flocking into the area.
By 1984, when the church's current building was completed, the surrounding suburbs were in
the midst of a stunning transformation. In 1970 there was one black among the 11,000
residents in the church's census tract. Twenty years later, two-thirds of the residents were
Pastor Barker, a typecast televangelist with silver hair, flashy jewelry and a black Lincoln
Town Car, had a high-stepping style that mimicked the traditional black preacher. By the time
he was forced out in 1993, in the throes of a messy divorce, the church was perhaps 20 percent
black and on the road to financial recovery.
Predictably, some whites left. Susan Carithers, a member since birth, could never quite accept
integration as God's will. Her husband grew agitated, she says, because "he just didn't want
black boys sniffing up to his daughter." They left in 1996, shortly after a black man gave Mrs.
Carithers a big hug during a Sunday service.
The Pughs could also have left, but they liked Pastor Brumbalow's preaching and their son's
participation in the youth group. And as they got to know black members, they found they
liked them, too. A lot.
The black churchgoers did not fit the Pughs' stereotypes. Mr. Pugh noticed that they did not
loll around or always have their hands out like the black men who smooth his concrete, the
ones he calls "the boys."
Even today he draws distinctions between his black employees and his black church friends.
Sometimes he cannot recall his workers' last names, though they have been with him for years.
He says that he occasionally has to bail one out of jail, and that if he drives around a corner fast
enough he will catch some lounging.
But he admires the blacks at the Tabernacle. They work hard and dress well, often better than
the whites, and live in two-story houses on well-tended lanes. "As I began to be around them a
lot more," he says, "I saw that there was a lot more of them trying to benefit themselves."
The Pughs held cookouts and invited mixed crowds, disregarding, even slightly savoring, their
white neighbors' stares. On Saturday mornings Mr. Pugh would round up a crew of church
men, white and black, to go paint a widow's house or serve soup to the homeless. One Easter
the Pughs took their black friends Paul and Rudine Hardy to an all-white club for dinner.
"Oh, my God, it was so funny," Mrs. Hardy says. "I said: 'Janice, Janice. These people are all
just looking.' They had all this fancy food, and every time I chewed they was just looking."
Mrs. Pugh sometimes gets weepy talking about her deep kinship with Mrs. Hardy and other
black women from church. She feels connected to them spiritually and turns to them when she
As she has learned about the bigotry they face, she has come to empathize. It isn't guilt exactly.
She doesn't feel she owes black people anything. After all, her life hasn't been so easy either.
But she understands, and that is something new.
"When I moved to Atlanta," she says, "I had never had any occasion to know what these
people were going through. I'd never had anyone come up to me and say, 'I was treated this
way because I was black.' When you hear someone say that, with tears in their eyes, you
know they just want to be loved. And I guess I connected with them because I was the same
way when I was a little girl. All I wanted was to be loved."
As she sees it, God is using the Tabernacle's integration to test "whether you move on in your
walk with the Lord."
Her husband's walk has been less steady. He remains capable of offending black friends even
as he beckons them into his life. They recognize that he has come a long way, that he has a
good heart. But they also suspect that he continues to use the word "colored," often to their
faces, to make it clear that he, not they, will define the terms of their relationships.
"It's a control thing," Mrs. Pugh says. "He wants people to know that he still knows the
Last August, one of Mr. Pugh's black friends decided to confront him, fearing newcomers
might be put off by his ways as head usher. But the man later backed down. Don't major in
minor, his wife had advised him. "I do value my friendship with Howard and Janice," the man
reasoned, "and if it's my friendship with them versus this, it's really very insignificant."
Mr. Burch reacted much the same way at a retreat last year, when Mr. Pugh told him a joke,
the one about the black guy who moved next door to the white guy:
The white man was leaning over his fence as his new neighbor mowed the yard. With each
pass, the black neighbor taunted the white man, "I'm better than you are, I'm better than you
are." Exasperated, the white man finally asked, "What makes you so much better than me?"
And the black man replied, "I don't have a nigger living next to me."
"Old Ruben just about fell out," Mr. Pugh remembers. "He didn't have a problem with it."
And, in fact, Mr. Burch says he didn't have much of a problem with it, though he was
surprised Mr. Pugh felt comfortable enough to tell him the joke. "That's just Howard," he told
himself. He let the moment pass, thinking that Mr. Pugh was like an old car, sputtering down
the highway: "You just say, 'Well, this is just an old car smoking and we'll go ahead and pass
it and one day it'll give out and be gone.' "
Part Two: What the Relatives Say
Shared Prayers, Mixed
Blessings by Kevin Sack
Best of Friends, Worlds
Apart by Mirta Ojito
Which Man's Army by
Steven A. Holmes
Who Gets to Tell a Black
Story? by Janny Scott
A Limited Partnership by
At a Slaughterhouse, Some
Things Never Die by
When to Campaign With
Color by Timothy Egan
Reaping What Was Sown
on the Old Plantation by
Growing Up, Growing
Apart by Tamar Lewin
The Hurt Between the Lines
by Dana Canedy
The Minority Quarterback
by Ira Berkow
Guarding the Borders of the
Hip-Hop Nation by N.R.
Why Harlem Drug Cops
Don't Discuss Race by
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