Paving the way for racially integrated churches

January 25, 2022

By Heidi Heller

Today we think of Methodist congregations and conferences as being integrated and welcoming to all individuals regardless of race. But looking back into early Methodist history, this was not always the case. Once upon a time, Black and white people had separate churches and even separate conferences.

In Minnesota, the earliest Black congregations were not members of the Minnesota Conference but instead members of the African American Lexington Conference that started in 1869 and included Black churches in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. This separation continued in some form until the 1960s. However, two Minnesota congregations—Border Methodist in the Lexington Conference and what is now Hennepin Avenue UMC in the Minnesota Conference—would be the first to break the mold within the state and pave the way for the racially integrated environment we think of today.

In 1875, Hennepin Avenue was founded as a white Methodist Episcopal congregation. By 1912, the church moved to its current location at 511 Groveland Avenue and would grow into one of the largest congregations in Minneapolis. Forty-four years later, in 1919, Border Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in the Near North neighborhood of Minneapolis and became one of the first Black congregations in Minnesota. That church purchased its first building at 95 Border Avenue in 1920 with $4,500 from the Board of Home Missions and Church Extensions. And in 1937, the congregation would relocate to 812 Fourth Avenue North in Minneapolis.

Although the two congregations initially were divided by race and location, they eventually formed a close relationship. Beginning in the late 1930s, they worked together in several areas such as the Women’s Society, Sunday Schools, and mission work. Also, during this time, Border Methodist started to align more closely with the Minnesota Conference, coming under the administration of the Minneapolis district superintendent. With the growing relationship between Hennepin Avenue and the Minnesota Conference, it seemed a natural fit for Border Methodist to become part of the Minnesota Conference. In 1937, with Hennepin Avenue's support and a unanimous vote at the Annual Conference, Border Methodist was accepted as the first African American congregation in the Minnesota Conference.

Over the coming decades, the two congregations continued to maintain closed ties—and around 1951, the they formed a joint committee of laymen to ensure an ongoing working relationship between them. These close ties and Hennepin Avenue’s efforts to be more inclusive led Hennepin Avenue to adopt a policy in 1955 to welcome people of all races into membership, which was uncommon in most white congregations at the time.

In the late 1950s, Minneapolis planners began to focus greater attention on redevelopment in areas the city saw as blighted and began building I-94. Unfortunately, the plans impacted the predominately Black neighborhoods like Near North, where Border Methodist was located. By 1956, it was clear to Border members that their church would be demolished along with other buildings in the area, and they would either need to move or discontinue their congregation.

Seeing the challenges facing Border Methodist, leaders at Hennepin Avenue made the bold decision to invite Border members to join their congregation—and Border leaders accepted the offer. On Jan. 20, 1957, 67 Border members officially became members of Hennepin Avenue.

A white church opening its membership roster to individuals of an all-Black church was unheard of at the time, and the move received attention from the local, national, and worldwide press. The pastors and members of both churches welcomed the opportunity to join together. “This is a wheel of progress turning and we become in a sense the hub for a national trend of integration in the churches,” said Harry Davis, a well-known civil rights activist and lay leader. Meanwhile, Hennepin Avenue’s Rev. Chester Pennington spoke out by saying, “We believe Christians should worship together regardless of race and cultural background.” And Minnesota Bishop Stanley Coors called the two churches coming together “a proposal of Christian love and fellowship,” adding: “I believe this will be remembered as one of the significant days in the history of Minnesota Methodism.”

Not everyone was in favor of the two churches joining. Bishop Coors received letters expressing concern over a white congregation welcoming Black members. However, the support was far greater with letters of congratulations coming from all parts of the world, including the Bishop in New Orleans and a missionary in India.

The bold act of these two congregations doesn’t receive a lot of attention today. However, their courage, their willingness to try something new, and their commitment to love and inclusion not only brought together two churches that had once been divided by race but also paved the way for other congregations to eventually become more racially diverse. Today, as we face ongoing racial divides and tensions in our communities, we can take some lessons from Border Methodist and Hennepin Avenue. These two churches are a testament to the fact that while differences exist in our communities, we can create positive change by loving our neighbors who are different from us and focusing on what unites us rather than divides us.

Heidi Heller is the archivist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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