Church appoints first black pastor
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Aug. 17, 2012 at 3:17 a.m.
UNITED Methodist churches in America
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For an African-American pastor, taking over a church with a historically Anglo congregation could be uncomfortable.
Not so for the Rev. Charles D. Stephens.
Stephens, 53, recently accepted an appointment about a month ago at John Wesley United Methodist Church, making him the church's first-ever black pastor. But even though he champions racial diversity within church congregations, Stephens said his first priority is to preach the gospel and lead others to a relationship with Jesus.
"People are people. They have spiritual needs and they want a relationship with God," Stephens said. "My preaching style, which can definitely be evangelical, is the same across the board no matter who I'm talking to. And the people here seem to enjoy it."
Stephens moved from Austin with his wife, Raquel, and three teenagers to accept the appointment at John Wesley, which was held previously by the Rev. David King.
But Stephens said moving to Victoria wasn't initially on his radar, and he certainly wasn't aiming to make racial history at the church. But if his presence at the church ignites diversity, he'll take it, he said.
"I pray a long time about the decision to take an appointment. It's not always about the size of the church, or the location, or the money. I want to go where God leads me," he said. "Since I introduced myself to the congregation, everyone has been open and accepting and told me they're glad we came."
It isn't the first time Stephens has challenged racial norms in the church - which continue to remain overwhelmingly segregated nationwide, according to The Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Since graduating the United Theological Seminary in Ohio in 2002, Stephens has worked in historically African-American churches, as well as racially diverse bodies, and has twice been appointed the first African-American pastor to lead Anglo-dominant congregations.
"Sometimes you have to put people of different races in these scenarios" for racial change to occur. "You have to be intentional about it," he said, mentioning the increase in African-American attendance in an Anglo-dominant Methodist Church in Ohio, where he was formerly employed. "I would like to see more diversity, but you just have to go with the flow. What we tell folks is that we want to be united with other Methodists in the United Methodist Church."
The Hartford Institute claims multiracial congregations are rare in American society. Racially segregated churches make up less than 10 percent of Christian churches, though Catholic bodies are three times more likely to be racially diverse than Protestant congregations, which includes the Methodist denomination.
But the Rev. Terrence Hayes, Victoria District superintendent for the Southwest Texas Conference, said the people of John Wesley are progressive and seeking primarily to be in an environment of Christian love.
"When we brought up the issue of race with the church, they didn't think twice about it," Hayes said. "They said they wanted a pastor who was community oriented, could preach well and would love them."
Hayes said the Southwest Texas Conference's Bishop Jim Dorff promotes the idea of racial unity among Methodist churches, supporting intentional decisions to create diverse congregations when possible.
"The United Methodist church has always had an openness for African Americans and (Anglos) and even Hispanics to get along. I am the third African-American district superintendent for the 52 churches in the Victoria District and have always been received as family," Hayes said. "We feel like John Wesley and the community is ready to deal with cross racial issues."
While settling in to his new role in the church, Stephens has already highlighted goals he intends to accomplish during his tenure, including advancing the church's presence in the community and growing the congregation both spiritually and numerically.
And as long as Stephens is guiding the ship, all are welcome, he said.
"I'm a whosoever-will person. I'm a let-them-come person. I will never deny any person here, whatever race; gay, homeless, whatever. If they come to seek God, they are welcome," he said. "I'm about relationships. At the end of the day, I want to make sure you really know Jesus Christ as your personal savior."