This story originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine.
At 11 a.m. each Sunday — labeled by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the most segregated hours in Christian America — an Appalachian church goes live on YouTube and Facebook. Organ chords and a rat-a-tat drum beat kick in. Then, in a city that’s 91 percent White, a Black pastor leads a congregation in a theme song that sums up his ministry. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism and I’ll tell it everywhere I go,” the Rev. Darrell Cummings sings in a voice grown gravelly after four decades of preaching, 31 years of that at Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in Wheeling, W.Va.
How the service unfolds — both in-person and during the broadcast segment — hints at that telling. A White choir member sings backup. Instrumentalists are Black. Songs include “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” — a hymn many Evangelicals would know by heart — and “I Don’t Know Why Jesus Loved Me” from the late gospel artist Andraé Crouch. When it’s time for prayer and scripture reading, both are led by a soberly suited Black deacon and a White woman whose tattoos peek out from her dress. They stand side by side at the front of the church.
Despite the ways the pandemic has made attendance difficult, that diverse mix repeats among the people in the pews at the historically Black church — founded by a Black elder from Philadelphiawhen West Virginia’s split from Confederate Virginia was still a living memory. Before the global health crisis, the Pentecostal ministry’s 50-some weekly attendees were about 60 percent Black and 40 percent White, according to Cummings’s estimates.
Cummings notes that such things don’t happen by accident. From choosing songs to guest speakers, he says he deliberately forges a worship experience intended to build interracial connections. “We’re not a Black church or a White church,” he explains. “We’re just a church.”
His intentional approach is not an isolated one in America, but his racially diverse congregation is a rare outcome among historically Black churches, says Michael O. Emerson, who has studied church demographics for two decades. He co-wrote a 2020 data analysis of the National Congregations Study, which collected statistics in 1998, 2006-2007, 2012 and 2018-2019 from more than 5,000 congregations. Although the analysis found that multiracial congregations — where no single racial or ethnic group makes up more than 80 percent of membership — have nearly tripled in the nation over the span of 21 years, most of that diversity comes from the addition of people of color to churches with White pastors, not White churchgoers attending Black churches.
Only 2.5 percent of U.S. congregations are both multiracial and have a Black pastor, Emerson says. When it does happen, that combination is generally connected to either attendees who are in interracial marriages or a “superstar” pastor, a known and well-regarded leader in the community like Cummings. But, Emerson says, both those factors are more likely to be present in metropolitan centers with diverse populations. Which means that Bethlehem Apostolic — a diverse Black church in a mostly White, nonurban area — may well be nationally unique.
Cummings’s faith philosophy is not limited to his Sunday service. Bethlehem Apostolic floods social services into the community, with the recipients reflecting the population outside the church’s modest Main Street building. It is mostly White people who are getting coronavirus vaccines, attending youth sports clinics, picking up backpacks loaded with school supplies and standing in line for holiday food baskets. “We’re just showing love,” Cummings explains.
The church is meeting a clear need and sparking partnerships, community leaders say. Its giveaways are so critical to students in the county’s public schools that superintendent Kimberly Miller announces them through automated phone calls and emails, notes a spokesperson from Miller’s office via email. The city’s Rotary Club wrote a check for more than $11,000 in August to bolster a church-led school supply event. Students from nearby West Liberty University, a public institution, help staff a youth tutoring and meal program hosted by the church. The city recently awarded funding toward creating a digital hotspot at the tutoring site. (Beyond church work, Cummings’s activities take him as far as chairing the state’s Human Rights Commission, to which he was originally appointed when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was governor.)
One of Cummings’s frequent collaborators is Chris Figaretti, lead pastor of the Vineyard — the closest thing to a megachurch in the area. Figaretti,whose congregation reflects the region’s demographics, concurs that Bethlehem Apostolic has become an outsize force in bridging racial divides. Following the murder of George Floyd last summer, Figaretti, Cummings and Joshua Lief, rabbi of the city’s lone temple, organized a panel discussion about racism and community policing, which involved both Wheeling’s police chief and mayor. Figaretti says he hopes Cummings’s approach todiversity inside and outside the sanctuary will spread to other congregations, including his own. “If we’re continuing to build that kind of culture, the details and the demographics will take care of themselves.”
Wheeling’s mayor, Glenn Elliott, suspects the overwhelming community buy-in comes down to the man in the pulpit. “What has always struck me about him is the way an African American pastor who is not from Wheeling has been able to win so many friends and allies across every demographic in our community without ever being nudged away from his core messages of hope, economic opportunity and racial justice,” Elliott told me via email.
Cummings knows where that kind of bridge-building ability began. The summer before he entered seventh grade, his family moved from a predominantly Black part of Cleveland to a neighborhood of largely Orthodox Jews in nearby Cleveland Heights. Cummings fondly remembers mowing the lawn of a neighborhood couple who were Holocaust survivors for free just to listen to their stories. He was startled when the woman told him the permanent bend in her back was from an injury inflicted by Nazis. “They fought to live,” Cummings says. “They inspired me that no matter how bad it was at the moment, there’s still the possibility of a better day, and I think that affected the rest of my life.”
In his new school, kids nicknamed him “Noah” — ready for the flood — because he had outgrown his pants by the time classes started. He tucked them into his cowboy boots, but, he says, “if you ever sit down, those pants will rise like Lazarus from the grave.” Without money for another pair, Cummings countered with humor so effectively that by the end of seventh grade he was elected student council president. “I personally thought that I was friends with both Blacks and Whites,” Cummings recalls. “I just thought about people and friends and wanting to help the school.”
By the time he came to then-mostly-Black Bethlehem Apostolic in 1990, that accumulation of experiences made it feel both natural and practical — given how few people of color live in the city — to try to make Sunday morning less segregated. It was a commitment that did not falter when someone repeatedly rearranged the letters on a church sign into a racial slur, or when a 1996 arson destroyed the ministry’s first youth center, or when he has faced occasional jabs that he is a publicity hound or not focused enough on racial inequality or his own congregation.
The latter criticism gets to him at times, though, he admits. At 61, he is pondering his legacy and wonders if he should have focused on growing an easy-to-tally membership that might have moved him up his denomination’s ranks. When discouragement hits, he says, he reflects on the ups and downs his father faced during 50 years of pastoring and on the small size of Jesus’s initial ministry. “It’s just putting our race aside and saying that we have a common love for Christ,” Cummings says of the work he prays will outlast him. “We don’t want to ignore anybody’s identity, but we don’t want to use it as a roadblock, either.”
Church members say Cummings’s goals resonate here and now. Julia Oakley, 51, the White woman who helped lead prayer during Sunday service, has attended the congregation on and off since her teens. She travels from close-by Pennsylvania to Bethlehem Apostolic, located near the historic intersection of rail, river and the National Road that made Wheeling an industrial boomtown.
Oakley’s children are biracial, but she says her link to the church is about spiritual need rather than cultural connection. “It’s more like a hospital. I was a broken person. I would just come and listen,” recalls Oakley, who now heads a $150,000 drive to re-roof the church’s nearby Dream Center, home base for most giveaways and various charitable programs when in full use.
When she sees people of all backgrounds standing in line for a food basket or joining a service, she believes it’s a sign of a rising need for help and hope that’s surpassing preoccupation with race. “White ladies are coming. Black ladies are coming. Young, old — they’re just coming,” Oakley says.
That was the case for David Wolen, a White retired coal miner who grew up just north of Wheeling in Windsor Heights, which was built by the coal company that employed his grandfather and was a segregated community in the 1950s. A few years ago, Wolen stopped by the church on the way home from his wife’s newly dug grave. He intended only to make a donation, remembering his wife’s admiration for Cummings’s work in the community. But he wound up talking to the pastor at length. “I was in there bawling like a baby,” says Wolen, who is now a regular parishioner. “The reverend … helped me through the darkest time of my life.”
JoAnn Bass-Smith, a Black church member who has been attending since the days when her mom had to bribe her with burgers from Elby’s Big Boy, sees the church’s increasingly biracial nature as proof that God can help people choose love. “Most of the people going to church, myself included, are there because they need their hearts to be lightened,” she notes. The church’s sense of community and connection helps foster that lightness. “It makes me very, very happy,” she says,“to see a melting pot at my church.”