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Small but diverse Mt. Olive church is among those breaking down barriers

On a bright pre-pandemic Saturday morning in a tiny stucco church tucked into a neighborhood of century-old houses, Gregory Bloomfield proclaims to the 13 congregants gathered that there is no room for racism in religion.

"I'm sick of this Black, white church thing," Bloomfield says. "I should be welcomed and embraced because of the body of Christ."

Bloomfield, an elder of Attleboro Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Massachusetts, drove more than an hour to deliver this 90-minute sermon at Mt. Olive Seventh Day Adventist Church as a visiting minister. The size of the group and the intimacy of the church made it feel more like a conversation than a lecture, as Bloomfield passionately discussed the teachings of Jesus as counter to both church and secular culture.

With in-person services still suspended due to the pandemic, it's uncertain when the faith community will return to these warm surroundings and the fellowship of their church family.

"The problem in the heart of America is the problem in our hearts," Bloomfield said, focusing on three social issues Christians face with respect to their faith: race, gender and politics.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock Sunday morning." While Bloomfield's words on this particular day seemed in sync with King's sentiments, numerous studies have shown that racial and ethnic divides remain in faith communities and that most members of these communities are OK with this. Indeed, many are drawn to particular faith communities where they feel most accepted and human nature is such that people feel most comfortable and comforted among those with whom they share a common culture, ethnicity, race or experiences.

Many faith communities, including those in New London, remain fairly homogeneous along racial and ethnic lines. In a city where Black people have been an integral part of the social and economic fabric for centuries, the Black community in the early 19th century began forming distinct worship groups where they could share fellowship and faith while feeling safe and accepted. Today, the city continues to have numerous historically Black faith communities. Shiloh Baptist Church, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, Walls Clarke Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Faith Baptist are among these.

The 35-member Mt. Olive is different. Although tiny, it is a racially and ethnically diverse faith community, with African American, Haitian, Filipino, Latino and Caucasian members. As such, its congregation mirrors that of the entire Seventh-Day Adventist church, which the Pew Research Center said in 2015 was the most ethnically and racially diverse in the United States. Mt. Olive's First Elder Mark Peake said people are drawn to the congregation because it is welcoming and every churchgoer is treated like family. There is another Seventh-Day Adventist church in New London but its services are conducted in French, so it serves primarily members of the Haitian community, Peake said.

Breaking barriers

The Rev. Florence Clarke, who founded and retired as the head of Walls Clarke Temple in June 2017, has worked to bring together the "Black" and "white" religious communities of New London. She preaches at many predominantly white churches in New London.

"When I preach, it's still a gospel," she said, "but to have me go in, and sometimes I'm the only African American there, it's not daunting, it's a privilege and I'm honored."

Clarke, who was born and raised in Charleston, S.C., participated in the sit-ins during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She said she has always tried to right the wrongs she finds in her community as much as she can. Her efforts include working to break down racial barriers and promote interracial understanding. She is, for example, a mentor in the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut's "Encountering Differences" program, which seeks to educate high school students about the impact of racism in society.

Clarke also serves in two local clergy associations. One of these is predominantly African American and the other predominantly white, she said. She said she wants a future where they can be more united.

"That's one thing that's in me to do before I step away from the scene," Clarke said. "This is my philosophy; that God has given me a little corner to make a difference because I can't reach everywhere. Wherever I can make a difference, I try to be there."

While her daughter tells her to cut back, the retired minister said she does what she can, visiting nursing homes and serving as a board member of the nonsectarian Pequot Chapel and the city's Homeless Hospitality Center. She also is active in the New London Rotary. She said she won't stop her work unless she's physically unable to continue.

"I guess I'm going to keep going until I can't do anything else because I love what I do," she said. "My mantra is you have to do it when you can, so when I can't do it anymore I don't want to be marinating in 'I should have, I could have.'"

The Rev. Ranjit K. Mathews, rector of St. James Episcopal Church, talked about how his congregation, which is mostly white with some Black and Afro-Caribbean members, is not racially and ethnically representative of the neighborhood in which the church is located. This makes it more important for him and other church leaders and congregants to be out in the community listening and talking to local residents about their needs, he said. The church's food pantry, for example, grew out of Mathews' efforts at community familiarization.

The pantry was established, he said, "From that depth of listening and the gifts of our congregation."

"We always have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another," he said, referring to the importance of melding spiritual beliefs with real-life needs and actions.

Estate inventories in Connecticut show there were enslaved people in the colony, including New London, from its early days of English settlement. According to information from Slavery in the North, a project of historian Douglas Harper, by 1774 New London County was the greatest slaveholding section of New England. The town of New London, with 522 Black people and 5,366 whites, had the largest number and percentage of Black residents. As slaves in the state gradually were emancipated, more free Black people became residents of the city.

Shiloh Baptist was likely among the earliest churches founded by African Americans in New London's vibrant Hempstead Street neighborhood. Church members congregated in the Prince Hall Masonic lodge and other buildings until being officially incorporated in 1900. The Rev. Albert Garvin Sr., a major proponent for civil rights in the city throughout the 20th century, was ordained in 1937 and served as Shiloh Baptist's pastor until 1965, according to the church's website. He was instrumental in working with major employers in the area, including Pfizer and Electric Boat, to help secure better-paying professional jobs for Black people.

Bishop Benjamin Watts at Shiloh Baptist, which still has a predominantly Black membership, said political activism long has played an important role for church members. They have worked on issues such as civil rights, equal access to jobs, ending housing discrimination and promoting equality of educational opportunities.

"We should be involved in political activism," Watts said. "But we try to stay nonpartisan."

Watts said the current pandemic has helped expose that systemic racism continues in the country. Many racial minorities who have lost jobs during the pandemic are more at risk, for example, because they do not have the savings or inherited wealth to help cushion them financially, he said.

He said he believes the racial awakening that has occurred in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by police in Minneapolis at the end of May, could result in more racially diverse church congregations post-pandemic.

"I'm looking forward to that day when worship will be in multi-colors," he said. "I think things will look different post-(COVID-19) because more whites are now curious to see whether there could be a full coming together."

Seeking to further outreach

While many contemporary faith communities' current membership mirrors their historical roots in terms of racial and ethnic homogeneity, others, including Mt. Olive, more closely reflect the diversity of the city as a whole. Regardless of racial and ethnic makeup, however, many faith communities struggle to grow membership.

Mt. Olive uses a variety of outreach methods to help build its community, including helping the homeless, preparing and serving meals to the public, supporting people suffering from addiction and mental health issues, and running youth programs. The roots of the city's busy Montauk Avenue Community Meal Center also are in Mt. Olive; the center grew from a meal site that operated in the church basement.

While the church is concerned with building membership, its outreach also is about living its mission. "I think it comes hand in hand," Peake said, "the membership comes with the procession of our faith."

Peake, who runs the church on a day-to-day basis and preaches when a visiting pastor is not present, said helping those in periods of strife is an essential part of the mission of any faith community. He has worked in the field of addiction counseling with groups like Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, in addition to his current work at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. He said helping community members dealing with addiction is about opening doors to and welcoming them, and that churches fulfill a similar purpose in their communities.

"People know they can go to the church and feel that they're not going to be judged, that the church is just going to accept them for who they are," he said. "They can come freely and seek prayer or seek counseling for their addiction that's going on in their life and not be judged because of it, but receive the help that they need to move forward in their life to get past this addiction stage of their life."

Mt. Olive seeks to bring youth into the church with an open-door policy and by providing them a network and community. Young members of the congregation can become young ushers and deacons in training. They also can participate in youth days, when they play an active role in the church service. The church currently has three young ushers and a deacon and deaconess in training.

Peake said the church has been considering creating a youth choir, but plans remain on hold due to the pandemic. The Northeastern Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the conference Mt. Olive belongs to, runs a program called Pathfinders in which youth are taught outdoors skills in a disciplined setting similar to Scouts programs.

"We don't want (the youth) to sit here and just watch," he said. "We want them to participate in the service where they can become a part of what God offers."

About this series

"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.

Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.

The entirety of the series can be found at bit.ly/nlsotc2020.

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