Two groups of Disciples in South Carolina — one African American, one Caucasian — will soon become one, concluding more than 100 years of existence as separate entities.
The predominantly white Assembly churches and the predominantly African American Convention churches are in the process of combining their governance structures, following the decision by the Convention’s leadership last August to dissolve itself and move toward merger with the regional church.
Both groups have rich histories. But slavery, segregation, and the lingering effects of racism led them to develop and maintain parallel structures. Convention churches represent about two-thirds of Disciples in the region; Assembly churches, one-third.
Early steps toward overcoming the racial divide were taken decades ago, primarily by the two separate Disciples Women’s groups, who got together for fellowship and mission. “The women were the prime motivators in challenging and stretching the region to really look at who were are,” said the Rev. Sotello V. Long, regional pastor.
A big milestone came in 2000, when the Convention and Assembly churches held a combined event — the “Great Gathering.” The Rev. Dick Hamm, then general minister and president and a proponent of the denomination’s pro-reconciliation, anti-racism initiative, attended along with other leaders from the national church.
When Long began serving in 2003, regional reconciliation was his top priority. “I came with the marching orders and the charge to really bring to reality this call to oneness,” he said.
Long spent his first year listening and learning. “We needed a vision. We needed a process,” he said, adding that he and others also did a lot of praying as they moved into uncharted territory together.
In casting their vision, Long and leaders from both churches decided to set the example from the top. Each group suspended its annual meeting — the Regional Assembly and the State Convention. Long appointed a Partnership Team, which chose a new location, date, and name — Regional Conference — for the combined gathering, held in November of 2004 and annually since then.
Leading up to the Conference, members of parallel groups within the Convention and Assembly, such as Disciples Men and Disciples Women, spent time with their counterparts, learning how each others’ ministries operated. Together they drafted proposals for bringing their separate ministries together.
The next big step in moving toward a full merger of two distinct churches — with their different traditions, worship styles, and ways of working — required honest dialogue and soul-searching. “We’re talking about a South where the vestiges of slavery are still alive and well,” Long said.
South Carolina turned to Sekinah Hamlin Sullivan, minister of reconciliation for the Disciples’ Southeast Regional Fellowship (SERF). Hamlin was the impetus behind the formation of the True Community Team — the South Carolina region’s reconciliation ministry. She worked with the team in 2009 and 2010, challenging them to “see the things that we were not doing well together but also see the things that we do well together,” said the Rev. Torrie Osgood, team chairperson and pastor of First Christian Church in Columbia.
Instead of its regular board meeting last February, the region called a summit, open to all churches, and let the True Community Team lead it. They brought in former Disciples Moderator Bill Lee, who is African American, and former General Minister and President William Chris Hobgood, who is white, to guide participants in dialogue about their differences, their fears, and their hopes for the region.
“It was a trying day for everyone, in the sense that everyone was speaking honestly and openly, but it was good for our church,” Osgood said.
After that, the Assembly churches held several summits, and the Convention churches continued their discussions at their regular Fifth Sunday gatherings.
The Rev. Deveta Smith Brown, associate regional minister, was the moderator of the State Convention and presided at the August 2011 meeting where the decision was made to officially dissolve. That decision “was bittersweet,” Brown said. “But the most important thing to us was being careful that we follow what we believe to be God’s directive — for us to be one church. After much struggle and much labor we decided that was the best way to go, to ensure a strong region here in South Carolina.”
The region is still working out final details of how it will become one church. Brown, Long, and other leaders say they are committed to ensuring that the conversations and decisions shaping the region’s future will continue to be inclusive.
“However we change hands here in South Carolina, the Black perspective will always be respected and represented in our church as we continue to work through this,” Brown said.
The Christian Church in South Carolina will celebrate the Convention’s history and its decision to dissolve during the next Regional Conference, to be held in October at First Christian in Columbia. Osgood, the church’s pastor, is honored to be hosting the gathering. “We’re not forgetting the past. What we are doing is committing to the future.”