A beautiful picture of racial unity around the gospel has emerged in Oakland, California.
The Way Church, planted by Bernard Emerson in September 2014, was a Converge PacWest congregation of about 30 people – predominantly African-American families – in East Oakland.
Oakland Communion, planted by Kyle Brooks in November 2015, was a Christian Reformed congregation of about 30 people—mostly young Anglo singles—in downtown Oakland.
The churches consolidated to form a new church — Tapestry Church — in June 2018.
Emerson, a 49-year-old African-American, and Brooks, a 32-year-old Anglo, met a few years ago at a community clergy meeting and quickly became friends. They learned they shared the same theological views and dreams, hopes and aspirations for ministry and community work.
The churches didn’t decide to join forces for financial reasons or to grow the congregation; they did it “to be an example of the gospel and to be an example of unity,” Emerson said.
But the congregations didn’t rush into a merger — it was a two-year journey.
“We didn’t want to assume our congregations would get along because we did,” Emerson said. “So, we were intentional about creating space for our communities to be together.”
Emerson started attending Brooks’ events so that the Oakland Communion congregation could get to know him. Brooks, in turn, visited The Way.
The pastors then shared the merger idea with the congregations, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from both churches.
Exploring hopes, dreams and fears
The congregations began worshiping together every eight weeks, then every four weeks and on holidays. They also went through the eight-week devotional Multiethnic Conversation by Mark DeYmaz. This gave people from both congregations a chance to express their hopes, dreams and fears about the merger.
“The overwhelming response from Oakland Communion was the idea of comfort. ‘I’m going to have to give up a certain level of comfort. I’m going to have to sing songs that aren’t familiar to me. I’m going to have to make friends with people I’m not used to,’” Emerson said.
“The overwhelming response from my congregation was, ‘Will they accept me for who I am?’”
Jeremy Evans-Smith, an African-American who attended Oakland Communion, says, “We feared we would lose value and celebration for certain theological or denominational traditions for the sake of being diverse. We’re still quite early in the journey of celebrating a fuller picture of what traditions are actually represented.”
Emerson thinks the secret to making a multiethnic, multigenerational church survive and thrive is being intentional about being in each other’s space and sharing life.
The Tapestry congregation, like any church or family, has its share of disagreements and misunderstandings, he admitted. But by thinking the best of each other they are able to talk things out.
No longer business as usual
Tapestry’s story of racial unity has resonated with the community, Emerson said. About 200 people attended the June 3, 2018, launch service at Learning Without Limits, the school where the church meets.
“People were saying, ‘I just came to be part of history. I just came to see if it was real,’” he said. “A lot of people who have no faith at all were there and told us, ‘I just came to see because this makes the Jesus thing attractive.’”
Emerson said he’s been surprised that the merger has received so much media attention, with coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR and local television.
“I thought we were just doing what came naturally. I guess it is a big deal when I think about it. One guy even wrote to us to say, ‘I had given up on church because it hurt me, but reading your story gives me hope.’”
Brooks said, “It’s been an unbelievable journey so far. So many people who are normally skeptical of churches have come because they see the unity displayed as a demonstration of God’s power to bring people together.”
The scriptural call for unity in the church is clear: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
So many people who are normally skeptical of churches have come [to Tapestry Church] because they see the unity displayed as a demonstration of God’s power to bring people together.
Unfortunately, the church in America has not been this way.
On NBC’s Meet the Press in 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. lamented “that 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours ... in Christian America.”
According to a 2018 LifeWay Research study, 81% of Protestant pastors say their congregation is predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group.
“We started Tapestry because we could no longer do business as usual while the world breaks apart, and Jesus has already given us the resources to be together,” Brooks said.
“What really excites me is that there is no way for this merger to succeed, for Tapestry to flourish, unless we all become more like Jesus — unless we become the church. Being a multicultural, multi-economic, multigenerational church is going to force us to be more truly Christian than many of us have ever been.”
Michael Smith serves as Converge’s content specialist. He has nearly two decades in the newspaper publishing industry. Michael worked as a copy editor and designer for the Tampa Tribune for more than a dozen years, and has also been a member of the editorial staff of Florida Baptist Witness and other publications across the Southeast.