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Black, white churches share space, receive glimpse of heaven

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A UMNS photo by Betty Backstrom

The Revs. Simon Chigumira (left) and Roger Templeton stand behind a banner welcoming both congregations to worship at Oak Park United Methodist Church.

May 22, 2006

By Betty Backstrom*

LAKE CHARLES, La. (UMNS) — The pastors of Warren and Oak Park United Methodist churches say their churches are getting a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like after a series of events triggered by Hurricane Rita last fall.

Warren Church is an historic, urban church composed of 30 African-American extended families and led by the Rev. Simon Chigumira. Oak Park has served a white congregation in a residential part of the city since 1951. The church is led by the Rev. Roger Templeton.

The members of Warren Church now worship at Oak Park each Sunday morning because their sanctuary, built in 1920, stands in ruins after Rita’s Sept. 24 landfall.

“After Hurricane Rita hit, the city was basically empty for two and a half weeks due to a mandatory evacuation,” said Chigumira, a Zimbabwe native. “When allowed to come back, we were faced with the reality that our beautiful church building was destroyed. Our congregation was in shock, but there was too much need in our community to stop and feel sorry for ourselves.”

The church immediately began the operation of a supplies and food bank, which served storm victims in the area.

“Many of the families surrounding the church are impoverished,” he said. “The children of the area have witnessed crimes and drug dealing. The residents are definitely at risk.” He said he hopes the Warren parsonage, which is still usable, will be converted into an outreach center that can continue to serve the neighborhood.

Respecting differences

Templeton invited Chigumira and the Warren congregation to use the Oak Park sanctuary for worship services in mid-October. After a few adjustments, the current Sunday morning worship schedule is 9:30 for Oak Park and 11 for Warren.

“I also pastor Fairview United Methodist Church, a smaller congregation in the area,” Templeton said. “While Simon leads worship for the Warren church in Oak Park’s sanctuary, I head over to conduct services for Fairview’s congregation at 11 a.m. each Sunday.”

Both pastors realized it would be important to maintain separate worship opportunities for the respective churches. “Warren’s congregation had been through so much change and trauma, we knew it was essential that they maintain some element of what was familiar,” Templeton said.

“Also, Simon and I both recognized that the worship styles of both congregations were quite different — Warren with a spirited praise style and Oak Park with its traditional approach. We wanted to respect those differences,” said Templeton, with Chigumira nodding in agreement.

On Easter, though, both congregations worshipped together during one service.

“The church was alive with the Holy Spirit,” Templeton said. “There was standing room only in the sanctuary, and everyone was moved by the experience.

“I was looking at Helen Lewis, a longtime member of Warren United Methodist Church, and my teenage daughter Bethany serving side by side at the altar during the service. I remember thinking that this must be what heaven looks like,” he said, tears in his eyes.

Mutual admiration

The two pastors have a strong admiration for each other.

“Roger has so much grace and diplomacy. Everything he has said throughout this process is not just words; he truly lives out the spiritual gift of hospitality ... and so does his congregation,” said Chigumira.

Templeton is equally impressed with his colleague. “I’ve learned a lot from Simon. He is a strong pastoral leader who gently walked his congregation through the process of grief in losing their church. He knew instinctively when to provide space and grace,” he said.

The invitation to host Warren at Oak Park has not been without its struggles or its detractors. “Inevitably, God will push us beyond our comfort zone. But it gives us a chance to examine what it truly means to be in ministry, not just to exist. We become sensitive to doing things a different way,” Templeton said.

?God is at work here’

Plans for an ongoing, blended service at 8:15 on Sunday mornings are under way. The service will be designed to attract younger, “unchurched” members and will probably have a relaxed format and contemporary music.

“One thing Hurricane Rita did not destroy is a wealth of state-of-the-art sound equipment at Warren UMC. Oak Park didn’t have these resources, so it is rewarding for us to contribute these items to make the blended service a reality,” Chigumira said.

“God is at work here, and we have to be obedient,” said Chigumira, who shared that he had dreamed of Warren developing into an African American mega-church. “Change is a process. And no matter how clumsy it may have been, or how many missteps may have happened, at the end of the day, these two congregations have started something special.

“Separately, we were two great churches. Together, we are so much more. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about.”

*Backstrom is editor of Louisiana Now!, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Louisiana Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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