Education

At Cedar Rapids church, a journey to togetherness

This marks the second Easter since a black church and a white church became one

CEDAR RAPIDS — On recent Sundays, musicians and singers at New City Church have searched for the right balance of full gospel harmonies, hymns and contemporary Christian anthems.

Finding the sound of a congregation born out of the merger of a black church and white church in Cedar Rapids has been one of many challenges New City has welcomed in its first year.

“At some point, we will stop that conversation and we will have a sound of New City that we know fits our culture,” said Pastor Rod Dooley, whose former church, the Oakhill Jackson Community Church, was mostly African American and thrived on gospel. “We’re on that journey.”

New City co-pastors Dooley and Daniel Winn — formerly of Cedar Rapids Family Church, where most worshippers were white — believe they were called to combine their churches in January 2018 to become an authentically diverse place of worship.

“Christ cares about this stuff. He cares about unity, obviously — John 17, his final prayer, is all about being one,” Winn said. “But this is not the driving force of this. As we’ve merged, so many people think it’s all about diversity, and it really isn’t. It’s about Christ, and yes, He cares about everyone coming together.”

As the nondenominational Christian church in the city’s northwest quadrant celebrates its second Easter, its leaders and many of its members are intentionally seeking out friendships across otherwise polarizing racial and ethnic divides.

“In a culture, and in an America, where different ethnicities do not trust each other, we trust each other,” Winn said. “And we make the choice to do it.”

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A shared faith, Worship Pastor Peter Rambo said, has allowed New City to become one of only a few places where people of various upbringings have been able to overcome cultural differences.

“No matter your history or your past, we can lock in on that,” said Rambo, who is white and leads many of the choir and worship team rehearsals. “That’s the central piece, the navigator. We all serve the same God.”

MERGER ‘SHOULD HAVE BEEN MORE DIFFICULT’

It takes a great deal of humility to weather a successful church merger, said Paul Alexander, an Arizona consultant with the Unstuck Group, which specializes in religious organizations.

It’s one of the reasons church mergers in the United States remain unusual despite a general decline in churchgoing.

“It’s not something you hear every single day,” he said. “Most churches would rather decline and die and have their property go back to their denomination or become a 7-Eleven or some convenience store as opposed to change their approach and reach new people.”

Only about 35 percent of Americans attend religious services at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center, though most are certain about their belief in God.

Churches like New City, which hired Unstuck while preparing for their merger, have helped Alexander remain optimistic about the direction of the Christian church writ large.

“The optics on it — it should have been more difficult than it was,” he said, adding Winn and Dooley’s willingness to defer to one another was key. “Not a lot of great leaders are willing to do that, in either the marketplace or church world.”

Most mergers of any two organizations, religious or secular, are unsuccessful, said Arturs Kalnins, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa.

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In the secular realm, such joinings most often falter because of an inability to integrate corporate cultures or because one company is more interested in acquiring the other, and overpowers its norms.

“The only possibility (a church) would have for success is the opposite approach” of an acquisition, Kalnins said. “Success is a matter of finding a balance between respecting everyone’s perspectives, delivering on what the church is to all the different parishioners from two groups, and at the same time saving enough money that this thing will remain viable in the era of shrinking attendance.”

When churches do merge, Alexander said, it’s often because one or both organizations are trying to “prolong death.”

“New City’s case is something completely different,” Alexander said. “This really started as a friendship between Rod and Daniel. These two guys built a friendship and felt a sense of calling and purpose that the city needed a church like New City.

“That’s a completely different reason — both churches were doing just fine and thought they could do more for the city together than they could apart.”

Now that the churches are merged, the former Oakhill Jackson church may become a community outreach center.

NO LONGER ‘US’ AND ‘THEM’ BUT A TEAM

Differences at New City Church do arise, leaders said, and unity is a work in progress.

During rehearsals, black singers have quoted “Coming to America” to dumbfounded looks on the faces of white members of the choir. Those moments are met with laughs — and offers to share the DVD of the movie — said Daryl Moore, who was a music minister at the Oakhill Jackson church and now assists Rambo at rehearsal.

More substantial differences, like disagreements over how to sing a particular harmony, have been learning moments.

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“We had to have a sit-down talk among the group to say — hey, we’re no longer Oakhill and no longer Cedar Rapids Family,” Moore said. “Something all of us have to come to understand is we really are no longer ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are a team.”

Moore and Rambo, like Dooley and Winn, use a friendship as the foundation of their work with New City’s singers and musicians.

While people of all ethnicities, Dooley said, can be tempted to shut down during tough conversations — out of fear of being seen as racist or an angry black man, for example — members of New City are encouraged by their pastors to lean into those interactions.

“A lot of the white people from Cedar Rapids Family Church are beginning to understand maybe there is something to white privilege,” Winn added. “We didn’t come out of the gate with that, but they’re starting to be understanding. Those who committed to this vision are starting to really listen to each other.”

With some 500 members, the church has seen growth since its founding, further blurring the line between the original, separate groups of worshippers.

“When you look across the congregation on a Sunday morning, you have a sense of this is what church is supposed to look like,” Moore said. “This is what heaven’s going to look like. It’s not going to one culture over there and one other there, really. It’s going to be worshipping together. Why not start now?”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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