Faith Memorial Baptist Church was a small country church in a large urban area. And it was dying.
Within his first eight months as pastor, Andrew Johnson presided over 14 funerals. Two years later, 14 more died to sin and death and publicly proclaimed their Christian faith in a makeshift baptistery at the church’s parking lot in Houston, Texas.
In its almost 75 years of existence, Faith Memorial has seen the ebb and flow of membership. At its peak, between the 1950s and ‘70s, the rolls held as many as 1,200 names. But when Johnson arrived in 2012 at age 22 with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree from Houston Baptist University (HBU), only between 60-80 people remained in the half-Hispanic, half-white congregation.
The pews could hold a lot more, Johnson thought. And the congregation should look more like the inner-city neighborhood it served.
Since then membership is up to around 300, and the faces in the congregation and behind the pulpit look like those across the street and around the block.
“All things have become new,” said Sherman Nong, following a worship service in late May, paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 5:17 and its relation to the changing complexion of Faith Memorial Baptist Church.
Photo by Bonnie Pritchett
Longtime members at Faith Memorial Baptist Church and friends Derwood Radican, 93, and Frankie Atkins, 72, are both retired postal workers and widows.
Gathered to share their unique perspective on the growing pains at Faith Memorial were Nong; Frankie Atkins, a 72-year-old African-American retired postal worker; and her 93-year-old friend Derwood Radican, who is white and also a retired letter carrier.
“There is something special about this church,” said Nong, the lone Asian member in the rapidly growing and changing congregation. “What’s special about this church is everybody is really warm. They try to get to know you. I have a lot of people supporting me in prayer.”
Raised in a local Vietnamese Baptist church, Nong – a 2015 Houston Baptist University pre-med graduate – wanted to broaden his perspective of Christian fellowship and worship beyond what he knew in a Vietnamese-centric expression of that same faith.
Atkins could relate. More than 40 years ago she transferred her membership from an all-black church to the nearly all-white Faith Memorial in 1972. Aside from her husband and their children, only one other black family graced the pews back then.
Some members were not as welcoming, Atkins recalled, but her family was grateful for those who were especially loving. An admitted “hugger,” she said, “There were a few who weren’t having any of that.”
But a mutual love for the Lord and his people transcended the racial tensions – a reality that still holds true today, Johnson said.
Atkins and Nong agreed that individual Christians willing to immerse themselves in a congregation where they are not the majority – where the only commonality is a shared faith in Christ – have so much to learn.
“True learning happens when we have little to no comfort or control,” Johnson told the TEXAN. “This can’t just be a cute, pithy idea – a tip of the hat to multi-ethnic churches.”
He noted the gospel united a fiercely divided culture in first-century Jerusalem as Jews and Gentiles found common ground in their mutual faith in Jesus Christ.
Photo by Bonnie Pritchett
Derwood Radican drove one of the church buses for nearly 30 years. Some of his passengers were his friend, Frankie Atkins, and her grandkids. Atkins began attending Faith Memorial in part because of the bus ministry.
“It proved that the gospel was for the whole world. If we fail to see that, we’re going to miss out on how big our God is,” Johnson said.
Having served as youth pastor at an all-black church Johnson understood, like Atkins and Nong, what it was like to be the odd man out.
“It was intimidating at first,” he said of his two-year stint with Alief Baptist Church in Katy while in college. “I was the only white face in the crowd. You learn something when you’re the minority.”
Although the doctrine was the same, the worship was very different for a boy raised in a white Southern Baptist church in Luling. Empathy for those in the minority and an appreciation for the differences in worship were significant takeaways for Johnson.
The lessons from Alief guided Johnson at Faith Memorial. Although he felt called to pastor a multi-ethnic church and believed the rejuvenation of Faith Memorial would require such a course, Johnson recognized his place as the new pastor – only the third in the church’s history. Some members had been there even longer than Atkins and had grandchildren older than the new pastor. So he gave it a year, preaching and establishing relationships in order to create a unified vision for the whole church.
And as expected, when this change came, not everyone was pleased. However, Johnson was fueled by the reality that creating a multi-ethnic church was not simply change for change’s sake. The survival of the church depended on the congregation reaching out to their predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, which is steeped in poverty and entrenched in self-destructive ways. Still, Johnson believed, the church would be better for it.
Some of his opponents – his “biggest headaches” – became his greatest allies during the course of the transition that began in 2014 with building renovations that included removing barbed-wire fencing around the property, repairing broken windows and painting an exterior wall with art unique to the neighborhood.
“We invested in a graffiti art mural, something that looks like a calling card to the community,” the pastor said.
And it served its purpose. The once nondescript, drab-grey building caught people’s eyes, and their curiosity drew them inside.
But most of the new members came because of family.
“Being an old church we are filled with grandparents. Their kids started coming back,” Johnson said.
After the May 31 worship service, Atkins and Radican joked about the changes. Different people. Different music. And the differences between the two of them.
“That was one of the most healthy things – to laugh at your differences,” Johnson said. “It was one of those things that put people at ease.”
The neighborhood of Atkins’ youth was half-black and half-Hispanic (she speaks fluent Spanish) so the transition came a little easier for her as the congregation began to reflect the neighborhood – race, ethnicity, tattoos, piercings and all.
Radican, too, seems nonplussed by the shakeup. For nearly three decades he drove one of the church buses through the neighborhoods of the historically black 5th Ward and predominantly Hispanic Denver Harbor picking up all who wanted to learn about the “risen Savior.” The spritely men’s Sunday School teacher took all the changes in stride, even offering to pitch in to pay for a new graffiti mural.
Staff members brought on since Johnson’s arrival also reflect the faces of those in the congregation and the community. Music director Moses Gonzalez is Hispanic and works to blend contemporary choruses with hymns and black gospel music. Andre Turner, who fills in with preaching and plays keyboard in the praise band, is black and coming into his own as a preacher, according to some members. Luke Dorr is white and works with the youth. All three men work full-time outside the church and are compensated with a small stipend from the church each month. Johnson is a part-time employee and is working on his master’s in theological studies at HBU.
Although the congregation was small upon Johnson’s arrival, there was a deeply rooted bond of care and affection for one another perhaps because of and not in spite of their differences. Members demonstrated that love for believers from differing backgrounds cannot be devoid of an appreciation for their cultural differences. “If you can speak their [cultural] language,” Johnson said, “that’s the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t let their culture be the line you can’t cross.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN at texanonline.net, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)