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Testing the Faithful

James Estrin/The New York Times
A fellow church member helps Brandon Tate prepare for the Christmas Pageant.
hat the Relatives Say

The Burches may want to make sure, as Mrs. Burch puts it, that their girls don't grow up "in an all one-race anything." But when it comes to their choice of church, they have been wounded by second-guessing from their relatives, particularly Mr. Burch's sister Jacalyn Ray. It has become personal, and at times ugly.

"It's a wannabe thing," says Mrs. Ray, who attends a black church. Her sister-in-law, she thinks, is too eager to make white friends and entertain them in her home. "Some people don't know who they are and have to go somewhere to validate themselves. She doesn't feel comfortable being black."

Mrs. Burch cannot figure out what she did to provoke Mrs. Ray, other than marry her brother. But other family members, while more tactful, do not fully reject Mrs. Ray's assessment. Mr. Burch's half-brother Frederick Caldwell has long noticed that Mr. Burch feels most comfortable in interracial settings.

"I think of Rick as my white brother," he laughs, using a nickname. "He has Caucasian features. Not facial features, but he has a white body type. He can't dance. He'll wear plaid pants. He played on the tennis team in school. He's a Newt Gingrich fan. I wouldn't necessarily say he wants to be white, but he has opinions not normally associated with a black man in the United States."

The relatives say they are also concerned that the Burches may be sending their daughters mixed signals. "I do know with Jessica there's kind of a working out of who she is," Mr. Caldwell says. "My concern for Gabrielle and Jessica is that they have a healthy respect for who they are."

Mr. Burch concedes some concern that his daughters may be too colorblind, that a life without overt discrimination has left them with little racial identity. Someday, he fears, an act of bigotry will shatter their naĀvet´.

Still, he resents the suggestion that he and his family prefer integration because they want to be white. He is comfortable with who he is. "I enjoy me," he says. "And I feel if you don't know me you're missing out." As for his sister, he says: "She's not in touch with reality. I mean, how do we want to be white? Because we want different things, want to live in different neighborhoods? No, she's totally wrong. I think it's a chemical imbalance."

Jessica, tall and outgoing like her parents and engagingly mature for her age, acknowledges inner conflict over racial identity. But it is not that she rejects her blackness or wants to be white. Rather, it is that she feels torn between her parents' insistence on living an integrated life and her black peers' suspicion of anyone who does.

Her parents insist that she and her sister speak "proper English" and scold them gently if they slip into black slang. But her classmates tease her relentlessly for her speech and for having white friends, and sometimes she cannot resist the pressure.

"I do talk improper English, or ebonics, with black friends," she admits. "Maybe I think they'll pick on me if I don't."

Two years ago, she decided to drop her white friends to placate the black ones. But she felt distracted, her grades suffered and she concluded that God was not pleased.

"I finally told myself that it doesn't matter what they think about me, it doesn't matter what color I hang out with," she says. "I have too much respect for who I am."

Not surprisingly, Vanessa Burch is annoyed by her daughter's problems and her in-laws' carping. But it has all made her think.

"I think long and hard about it to see, you know, could this really be true," she says. "And then I go and ask other people, 'Do you think I try to be white?' And they're like: 'What? No. You couldn't be if you wanted to.' It used to really weigh on me and I used to pray about it. 'Lord, what is it? Show me. If I'm doing something to make people see me like this, show me.' "

It hasn't come. People just don't understand, she says, that she is motivated by pragmatism, not racial treason. The reality is that her daughter will face a white world, with certain rules for getting ahead.

"I know that being black is one strike against us," she says, "and in the business world, where she's going to have to compete, being a woman is two against her. So I want her to have enough education that they can't resist her. I want her, when she gets up to speak, that they're like, 'Wow, who is that?' And believe me, voice and articulation get attention."

She is trying, she says, to help her daughters realize that there are no limits, that the restraints and prejudices of her own youth have been lifted. They can do anything, live anywhere, even someplace more extravagant than their new three-bedroom house.

"You want to live in that house on the hill over there," she challenges them, "you can live there. You have the same rights as the next person before you, beside you, behind you, around you. All of you can do the same thing. Once upon a time we couldn't. But now we can."

A Colorblindness Test

Curtis and Dorthea Lockridge.

There was little chance that the Burches and Pughs would miss the wedding of Dorothea Lemon and Curtis Lockridge last June. It was to be the Tabernacle's first big interracial ceremony, and as Madge Mayo explained it, "Something is about to happen that we haven't all fully digested."

The bride, 43 and black, and the groom, 58 and white, had both recently been widowed. The two couples had been friendly at church, and Mr. Lockridge and Mrs. Lemon comforted each other through their grief. Before long, they were holding hands through the Sunday service and scribbling notes on the church bulletin.

"I luv you, Curtis," she would write.

"I'm glad," he would respond.

It raised some eyebrows when Pastor Brumbalow announced their engagement. One elderly white lady asked if Scripture permitted mixed marriages, and he told her there was no prohibition. Blacks and whites asked if it was wrong to want their children to marry within their races. He said it wasn't, and made a point of telling the men's group that he was not encouraging interracial dating.

The afternoon of the wedding, Vanessa Burch slid into a pew toward the back. "What are these people thinking?" she remembered wondering.

"How many are going to be in an uproar, and how many aren't going to be back?"

Howard Pugh recognized that the couple were grownups and could do as they pleased. But interracial relationships just went against his upbringing.

"Oh, Lord," he thought as the bride walked down the aisle. But by the end of the afternoon, Mr. Pugh could not help smiling. The couple looked awfully cute, and very much in love. The ceremony had been elegant, the reception lavish. "I'll tell you the truth," he said. "I haven't seen many white folks' weddings put on like that."

Still, some remained uneasy. "The thing that worries me most," said Madge Mayo, "is that this is going to turn things loose for the young people and it's going to get, I shouldn't say entangled, but I'd just say more mixed."

Sense and Sensitivity

What Janice Pugh cannot understand, despite her newfound empathy, is why black folks remain obsessed with race, why they can't just let it all go. She and Rudine Hardy talk about it from time to time, sitting on a green leather couch outside the sanctuary. Mrs. Hardy will wonder why the pastoral staff is so white, and Mrs. Pugh will bristle.

"You need to stop being so sensitive about all this," she will say.

"You don't understand," Mrs. Hardy will respond. "You're not black."

"I'm not black, and I never will be black," she will answer. "I just think there are other issues out there that you have to be concerned about that have nothing to do with race."

She thinks about it often. The church should be about love, and love should know no color. "If I were in their shoes," she says, "I would take the attitude that the past is past. You have to go on, and the blacks now, this is the time for them. They're more accepted now."

Because the Tabernacle is an island, and a refuge, it is often hard to accept that racial tensions lie just beneath the surface, vulnerable to exposure from the slightest scratch. But the island is in the world, and in the world there is no refuge.

Kathy Watson, a children's pastor, learned that lesson when she was rebuked by a black parent for referring affectionately to her toddlers as "monkeys." Another youth pastor got an earful about a Bible lesson that equated the color black with sin.

But those flare-ups do not rival what happened last summer with the Homebuilders, a Sunday school class for couples. Until two years ago it was led by a white couple, and attendance was predominantly white. Then Enefiok Umana, a deacon from Nigeria, and his wife, Eno, assumed the leadership, and the class became overwhelmingly black.

Many blacks concluded that whites were simply unwilling to submit to black leadership. And their suspicions were stoked one August morning when two associate pastors interrupted class to introduce a white couple as leaders of a Bible study being started for younger couples. One pastor, Ray Martin, added that the Homebuilders would come under the new class's "umbrella."

After church, the blacks huddled in the parking lot and burned up the phone lines. Some wrote in protest. The implication was clear, they felt. The church was starting a white class for those unwilling to attend the black-led class. And the bit about the umbrella really set them off.

"It was like a kick in the behind to me," said Mrs. Hardy.

Pastor Brumbalow ate lunch at William and Lula Turner's house that day. And as they told him of the discontent many blacks were feeling, the pastor started to weep and vowed that the Enemy -- meaning the Devil -- would not divide his flock. But he had to leave town the next day, and the flames raged on.

The associate pastors were flabbergasted by the reaction and wounded that the blacks could think there was racial intent. "I really thought they were a little further down the healing curve," Pastor Martin said. "It let me know that we're dealing with people that still have some wounds."

In conversations with class members, Pastor Martin acknowledged that the word "umbrella" had left the wrong impression. What he had meant, he said, was simply that the two classes would be parallel ministries that would occasionally come together for functions.

When Pastor Brumbalow returned, he took charge of damage control, delaying the new class to let emotions calm. The next night, though exhausted from his trip, he made a point of attending a Homebuilders potluck dinner.

Still, when the new class finally began, it was attended mostly by whites. And when the new group held a retreat, only one Homebuilders couple chose to attend.

When to Preach on Race

Two Sundays after the Homebuilders incident, Pastor Brumbalow did something he had hardly ever done. He preached about race. "I don't normally get this blunt," he began, slapping his hands for punctuation, "but I will get this blunt this morning."

"I want to say to you of color and you that are white" -- he was screeching like the brakes on a train -- "that if you look at a person based on the color of their skin and you evaluate them right then and there, then, my friend, you have missed the purpose of the love of God."

Sometimes, he said, it takes a while to catch on -- to comprehend that God is working a miracle at the Tabernacle so people might have a glimpse of heaven. "When I look across this congregation," he said, "I understand what God is doing. I understand the eternal kingdom."

Pastor Brumbalow recognizes that not everyone was brought up that way. In fact, he wasn't brought up that way. Growing up near Atlanta, he didn't really know any blacks, and he wasn't particularly godly. It was only after some wild days as a rock guitarist with a band called Completely Souled Out that he found God and his future wife, Becky, at a Pentecostal revival. He left shortly for Vietnam, where he won decorations for heroism.

His previous pulpit, in suburban New Orleans, had few blacks. And yet, at 50, he has managed and accelerated the Tabernacle's integration with considerable skill. Both races trust him like a parent and admire his evenhandedness, political instincts and common touch.

"He'll drink out of the same glass," Mr. Burch says. "That's the kind of feeling I get from him, you know, that I'm not higher than you."

He is a gifted preacher, fashioning sermons that are neither inaccessibly erudite nor insultingly shallow. But he prefers, he says, not to preach about race. He would rather lead by example, embracing each in his flock with the same tenderness, blessing each with the same prayers, accepting dinner invitations from all.

"I think the pitfall of having a blended church is when you make race the issue," he says. "What we're doing here as a church is not about race, and if we make that the emphasis then we miss the bigger picture. Our main goal is to reconcile people to God."

He would never say it, and maybe doesn't even let himself think it, but there is another reason not to make race the issue. To preserve the Tabernacle's fragile balance, he must reach out to newcomers without alienating old-timers like the Pughs.

The blacks at the Tabernacle were jubilant about the pastor's race sermon. And the Pughs, like many of the whites, had no real problem with its content. But that he delivered the sermon at all rubbed them the wrong way. He was playing to the crowd, they felt, or at least to part of it.

From time to time, the Pughs had discussed looking at other churches. The Tabernacle was a long drive from home. Now they shared this gnawing sense that race was beginning to supplant God's love as its driving force.

"What would cause me to leave," Mrs. Pugh said, "is for them to constantly have a platform on the black issue, to always talk about race, and not let the Holy Spirit lead us."

Sometimes, though, Pastor Brumbalow says, God just lays a message on his heart and he can't shake it loose. It happened again in February, when, voice quavering, he read Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and prophesied that the Tabernacle would become a beacon for others.

"God is saying, 'I am going to prepare you to be a light, to be an example to the city of Atlanta and to the state of Georgia,' " he said. "I want to tell you, God has a dream and his dream is being fulfilled in this house this morning in the name of the Lord. Hallelujah!"

The Pughs would have preferred a different topic. "He keeps bringing it up and bringing it up," Mr. Pugh said. "With this race deal, once a year is adequate, not every other Sunday."

Several weeks later the Pughs visited another church.

A Delicate Balance

James Estrin/The New York Times
Ushers form a prayer circle before the start of a service.

If the Burches and other black leaders at the Tabernacle have a complaint, it is with the level of diversity in the staff. They do not always protest publicly, fearing they might break the spell of racial good will. But they are always watching and counting. All you have to do, they say, is look at last year's Christmas card photograph of "the Tabernacle team," 19 red-sweatered staff members, every last one of them white.

And yet when positions have opened, black deacons have chosen not to lobby Pastor Brumbalow to fill them with blacks. They recognize, they say, that the task is not easy. The Assemblies of God is still virtually all white, with fewer than 400 blacks among its 32,000 licensed ministers. And because Pastor Brumbalow holds a statewide leadership position with the Assemblies, it might be considered bad form to hire from outside the denomination.

Even before last month's success, he had searched assiduously for black prospects, knowing that "it would certainly speak volumes that I pretty much practice what I preach." In several instances he let the congregation know that he had offered jobs to black prospects, only to be rebuffed. That seemed to satisfy his black constituents.

"He interviewed black people and they turned it down, so what can you do?" Mr. Burch said after one such search.

In general, black members suspect that it may not take much to upset the racial equilibrium of the church. Ultimately, they assume, it will come down to power. If black numbers increase to where whites feel disenfranchised, whites will leave, they predict.

For the moment, the pastors feel they must move incrementally. That was never clearer than in the planning of last year's Christmas pageant.

Like other blacks, Ruben Burch had long noticed that blacks had never been cast as Joseph, Mary or Jesus. The whites, he assumed, would have a fit. "Boy, if they figure out there was a black Jesus they probably wouldn't want to go to heaven," he joked.

Pastor Smith, the music minister, badly wanted to break that color barrier. He knew that Scripture was largely silent about Jesus' appearance and that various cultures portrayed him in their own images. But he, too, was unsure if the older whites were ready for an ebony Jesus.

So he devised a scheme to soft-pedal the racial transformation of Christ. He selected for the lead roles Stephen and Sobrina Smith, a light-skinned multiracial couple who happened to have a newborn son, Joshua. Mrs. Smith, born in Trinidad, is part African, Chinese, East Indian, Hispanic and South American Indian. Her husband, a New Yorker, is part Italian, Polish, black, Jewish and Native American.

The pastor theorized that if he could sell the Smiths, he could cast darker-skinned blacks in future years. "The first time it shouldn't be such a shock," he said. "They're not as dark. They're sort of a medium."

James Estrin/The New York Times
Sobrina Smith with her baby Joshua in the Tabernacle's Christmas pageant.

The pageant went off without a hitch, down to the triumphant finale, when an adult Christ figure, adorned with a crown and scarlet cloak, rode into the sanctuary on a stocky white horse. Mrs. Smith was fetching as Mary, dressed in a blue satin robe and a white shawl, cradling Joshua as her husband knelt nearby. Mr. Burch, playing a wise man, watched on bended knee.

Pastor Smith could not have been more pleased. He received lots of compliments and not a single comment about the racial makeup of the cast, which was how he wanted it. Most white members, if they noticed at all, reacted about the way the Pughs did, with a shrug.

"I think the white people have been shocked so many times that it doesn't make any difference anymore," Mrs. Pugh said. "They just say, 'Well, that's the way it is now.' "

Even the Smiths, told later that they had been selected for their complexion, said they didn't mind too much, so long as it helped move the church forward. And yet the whole experience made them wonder.

"If we are an integrated church, as we claim to be," Mrs. Smith asked, "why do we still have to go through hoops and loops to make a point and get a message across and pacify certain people and keep waves from starting? If we're still playing around with this, then maybe we're not really who we say we are."

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