Kansas City churches build partnerships
by Donald E. Skinner
Beverly Riemensnider, a member of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, anticipates the mornings when she helps with the soup kitchen at Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The work itself is usefulthe fixing of food and the cleaning up afterward. But most of all she likes sitting down to lunch with the workers from Ward Chapel and sharing conversation.
She knows them well enough now that she can ask about their husbands and their children and their health. Just as they ask about her life. And because she's been working with them a few times a month for five years, the conversations often go deeper now. “For instance, a story in the paper about racism might prompt someone to share something about how they were treated in a similar instance,” says Riemensnider, who is white. “It's helped me see things from a different perspective. I've made friendships that will last even if the soup kitchen were not there.”
All Souls and Ward Chapel are part of an organization, Congregational Partners, that was formed seven years ago to help congregations of different denominations, faiths, and ethnicities build relationships of trust. The group is an arm of Kansas City Harmony, an organization that formed in 1989 after a study showed Kansas City to be one of the most racially divided metropolitan areas in the nation.
Congregational Partners has fifteen partnerships. Each congregation in a partnership creates a planning team. The two teams meet regularly to plan activities that generally include pulpit and choir exchanges, visits to each other's worship services, recreational events, and social justice activities.
All Souls and Ward Chapel had a retreat to begin the partnership and since then have had pulpit and choir exchanges, collaborated on parties for residents of a Salvation Army shelter, held a fish fry, taken in a Royals baseball game, and worked together on the soup kitchen. This spring All Souls held a fiftieth-anniversary program series on the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education desegregation decision. Ward Chapel members helped identify topics, speakers, and resources.
The two congregations have widely different religious traditions, but choose to focus instead on racial justice and community service issues. “The focus is on building racial harmony and understanding,” says Kathy Butterfield, chair of the racial justice committee at All Souls. She adds that working with the program has caused her to think differently about race issues, including reading books she might not otherwise have picked up.
T rue partnerships involving frequent contact between UU congregations and congregations of color are rare. Three congregations in Connecticut, Manchester's Unitarian Universalist Society East, the First Universalist Church of West Hartford, and the Unitarian Society of Hartford, have a partnership with a large African Methodist Episcopal church involving a monthly meeting, potluck, and occasional choir exchanges. A partnership between the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Medfield, Massachusetts, and a predominately black church survived for about eight years but foundered recently on the same-sex marriage issue. The Rev. Josh Pawelek, minister of the UU Society East and a former staff member of the UUA's Faith in Action office, acknowledges that the relationships can be difficult to sustain because of religious differences. “That doesn't mean we shouldn't try,” he adds.
At the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, Annette Box was drawn into the Congregational Partners program two years ago when Janet Moss, Congregational Partners program coordinator, spoke at a service. Shawnee Mission joined the program and was paired with St. Mary's Holy Tabernacle, a nondenominational inner-city congregation. Box is chair of Shawnee Mission's four-person partnership planning team.
“I knew that our metro area was very segregated,” says Box. “As someone who had always lived in the suburbs I had not been exposed to people who were culturally and racially different except at work. I wanted our church to practice what it preached in terms of racial justice.”
Since the partnership started, the planning teams from both congregations have met at least every other month. There has been a pulpit exchange, members have visited each other's worship services, attended a potluck and “fun day,” and spent several hours sorting food donations at a food pantry. This spring people from both congregations met to watch and discuss the antiracism film, The Color of Fear. The partnership's most ambitious event was a joint “Alike and Different” week-long day camp in June for children of both congregations. The camp paired teachers from each congregation and used both churches' facilities.
Box says most of the partnership events are fairly low key and involve only a few people. For that reason the partnership sometimes goes unnoticed. “People at church sometimes ask me why we're not doing much,” she says. “We are actually doing a lot, but they're not big things.”
The partnerships aren't intended to do major, showy projects, says Moss. Rather, the hope is that small groups of people will gather, get to know each other over time, and then “go deep” in discussing substantive matters such as racial issues and religious differences. Part of Moss's job is to help congregations reach beyond the initial small talk. “When I see people avoiding an issue I try to put it on the table,” she says.
Box and Butterfield are working to ensure that their partnerships endure. They know that, historically, people of color have often seen well-meaning white people come in to try to “fix” something and then leave. “It's very important to show we're in this for the long haul,” says Butterfield. “The principle on which Congregational Partners is based is that the partners come together as peers. They work on projects jointly and listen to each other.”
The Rev. Barbara Herndon, pastor of St. Mary's, says she sees progress. “I think that everything we have done has had an impact. My hope for the future is that we as congregational partners will touch lives and allow others to see that in our differences we are actually the same.”
Riemensnider, at All Souls, adds, “I believe that great things can come out of small and persistent efforts. None of us are here to preach, but to listen and to sometimes offer a different point of view. If we build trust then maybe we will all see things in a little bit different light.”
Janet Moss at Congregational Partners can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org; (816) 531-6577, or www.kcharmony.org.