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Theology Thursdays: White and Black Churches Mix It Up by Meggen Lindsay

Praising the Lord just got easier for Julie Broden-Phillips.

She may one day get a black church in the south suburbs.

She has logged too many miles to count, driving from her Rosemount home to St. Paul several times a week to attend St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, her childhood congregation.

But on Thursday nights, the mother of four gets to attend an AME Bible study much closer to home at Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Apple Valley.

There are no predominantly black churches in the area, she said, so having at least a class nearby has become a great comfort. It's the community's first.

"It really is filling a need here," Broden-Phillips said. "I know so many people who travel quite a distance for church. My husband and I searched for a multicultural congregation when we got married, but there was really nothing out here."

The Bible study is part of a new fellowship and effort to partner two congregations that historically have been distinctly black and white. It's the brainchild of the Rev. William Smith of St. James and Pastor Kent Claussen Gubrud of Christus Victor.

"One of the most segregated hours in the United States happens on Sunday mornings," Gubrud said.

Smith is working to create a congregation large enough to support an AME church in Dakota County, while Gubrud said his membership wants to open their church to outside groups.

The two denominations, along with a Hispanic Pentecostal group, come together in Apple Valley for a dinner and classes once a week, but they do not share church services. There are Bible study and Alpha classes, a 10-week, nondenominational introduction to Christianity.

Smith intends to start an AME worship service this spring.

"We hope to attract all ethnicities and then go from there," he said. "It's a major endeavor, so to speak, to get AME on the map. And the (Lutheran) church has a real heart for this kind of mission they want to reach out into the African-American community."

At last week's get-together, the parking lot was full and the halls were crowded with playing children. Folks from each church mainly stuck together but mingled as they prepared dinner and ate.

Signs directed visitors to the separate Bible study and Alpha classes.

"We're getting to enjoy and really get to know each other," said Christus Victor member Sharon Myllenback, of Eagan. "We're very excited about what this could eventually turn into."

The AME Church originated through sociological, rather than theological beliefs, according to its national Web site. The church was born in protest against slavery, and the denomination is Methodist in terms of doctrine and order of worship.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, along with other Lutheran churches, traces its roots directly to the Protestant Reformation and the 16th-century teachings of Martin Luther, a German monk. The religion has primarily served those of European descent, particularly Germans and Scandinavians.

On a national level, the two churches talked about partnering in the 1990s and even published a handout in 1996 called "Understanding One Another."

"But to our knowledge, what we're doing here has never been done before on a church-to-church basis between the AME and the ELCA," Gubrud said.

Smith picked Apple Valley for its growing minority population and a feeling in his heart.

"Luckily, my gut feeling was in agreement with what the numbers were telling us," Smith said.

Dakota County's black population although just 4 percent of the community has been growing steadily. According to the U.S. census, from 2000 to 2005, the county's black population increased from 8,091 to 14,878 residents, a jump of 84 percent.

Smith and his wife met Gubrud last fall when they were scouting Lutheran churches. By chance, they pulled into the parking lot at Christus Victor late one evening, and Gubrud was there. The two pastors discovered they both attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, and the partnership began.

Broden-Phillips is glad it did.

"I feel very welcomed at Christus Victor and feel like there could be a great collaboration," she said. "Just learning more about each other and our faith has been wonderful."

Smith believes he was called to multicultural ministry, a path fostered by his many friends and family members in biracial partnerships.

"At our family reunion, we have four or five different races, all married with children," he said. "I thought that was a ministry not catered to."

He compared the church collaboration to an interracial marriage.

"In that type of marriage, people transcend whatever social barriers and norms that have been placed upon them and find a common basis for attraction," Smith said. "They find things to build on in common and at some point realize a true connection.

"There's the potential for that kind of partnership with the two churches. We're coming together to build on an unlikely relationship."

Meggen Lindsay can be reached at This article appears in The St. Paul Pioneer Press

Meggen Lindsay

Thursday, February 8, 2007

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