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Black Pastor Reveals Shift Of Attitude in Birmingham

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): June 23, 2001, Saturday    
Black Pastor Reveals Shift Of Attitude in Birmingham        .

June 23, 2001, Saturday

Black Pastor Reveals Shift Of Attitude in Birmingham

For a moment on Sunday, the pastor forgot where he was, or so he said.

Delivering his inaugural sermon as senior pastor at Huffman United Methodist Church here, the Rev. Charles Lee was trying to explain what lay behind the choice to follow Jesus. ''That ain't no easy decision,'' Mr. Lee said.

But as Mr. Lee, who is black, looked out over a sanctuary filled with white faces, he caught himself. ''Oh,'' he said with a wry grin. ''I've got to remember I'm at Huffman.''

The pastor then adjusted his grammar and his dialect. ''That is no simple decision,'' he said.

Mr. Lee, a 56-year-old native of Georgiana, Ala., is the first black pastor at Huffman, a predominantly white church in a Birmingham neighborhood that is rapidly gaining black residents.

The congregation has about 1,500 members, all of them white except for those in 12 black families. To try to ensure that the church continues to thrive in this transitional area, Methodist officials in Alabama said they concluded that an exceptional pastor like Mr. Lee could attract new black families and retain Huffman's tightly knit white members.

The strategy is not without risk in a city where involuntary integration was once met with fierce resistance.

''This is forward moving,'' Mr. Lee said. ''When you think back on the days of dogs and fire hoses and then you think of a black pastoring white people, that is quite progressive.''

Jim Nash, a 70-year-old church member, said that Mr. Lee's preaching style was livelier than that of his white predecessor. But Mr. Nash, a retiree, said that did not mean that one approach was better than another, and that he believed Mr. Lee would strengthen the church.

The Rev. Bill Morgan, the United Methodist district superintendent for Eastern Birmingham, said he believed that Huffman had the right ingredients for integrating successfully: a strong and progressive church, a large black population in surrounding areas and a sensitive and experienced pastor.

Mr. Lee is confident that he is up to the task. Huffman is not the first white congregation he has led. In 1994 he became senior pastor of Christ Church United Methodist, an all-white congregation in the Birmingham suburbs of Shelby County, where he served for seven years.

While the demographics of Shelby County did not leave much room for integration, those surrounding Huffman seem ideal. And most people in leadership positions at Huffman are relatively young and open to the effort to encourage integration by assigning Mr. Lee, Mr. Morgan said.

On Sunday, Mr. Lee preached in a deep, rich voice that washed over the 350 people in the audience. The crowd, including a few blacks, sat attentively as his words echoed through the church.

In his 30-minute sermon, Mr. Lee introduced his new parishioners to the call and response style that has become a staple of the modern black church.

On Sunday, the church's white members seemed completely accepting of Mr. Lee and his style, and some said they viewed his appointment as a reflection of the changes that had come to their state.

''I am not proud of what went on in Alabama,'' said Hardy Moore, a 44-year-old photographer and church member since 1994. ''I am thrilled to have this man. It is going to be a good and interesting time for this church.''

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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