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ECATUR, 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 stage.
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 happen.
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.
James Estrin/The New York Times
A Sunday morning service at
the Decatur, Ga, Assembly of God Tabernacle, whose
members say blendedness is a blessing.
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, or recoil?
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 this lady."
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.
AND RELIGION: More information based on a study of
congregations in the U.S.
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 time."
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 and distrust.
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 deacon.
"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 eventually flee.
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 nigger anymore."
"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 could adjust."
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, educated nigger."
"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 somebody's hand."
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 a medic.
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'
James Estrin/The New York Times
Members of the Assembly of
God Tabernacle congregation from left; William Pugh,
Janice and Howard Pugh, Ruben, Vanessa and Jessica
Burch. Gabbrielle Burch in front.
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 black.
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 needs prayer.
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 difference."
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.' "