CINCINNATI -- Imagine a place where people come together weekly for a common purpose without any disharmony because of racial or cultural differences. Sorely needed in today’s world, you say?
That’s the vision for Indian Mound Avenue Church of Christ, a new congregation comprising three churches that once used the same church building but met at separate times for worship: Norwood Church of Christ, a predominately white congregation; Madisonville Church of Christ, a predominately African-American congregation; and Iglesia de Cristo, a Hispanic congregation (the name means "Church of Christ" in Spanish).
The congregations held their first joint worship service Jan. 1 at 2312 Indian Mound Ave. in the sanctuary of the former Norwood Church of Christ.
"I’m ecstatic, I’m excited," said Greg Jasper, a full-time firefighter with the Cincinnati Fire Department and the former pastor of Madisonville Church of Christ who now serves as the senior pastor of the new church. "I see us doing some really great things as we move forward."
The merger happened, he said, because the congregations decided it was better for God’s kingdom that they pool their resources than try to survive on their own.
The oldest congregation, predominately white Norwood Church of Christ, was established in the 1950s, said former pastor and current Indian Mound associate pastor Tom Menges. That congregation built a sanctuary that seats 242 people with a basement fellowship hall.
In its heyday, when General Motors was the major employer in Norwood, the church held two Sunday services to accommodate the crowds, Menges said. In recent years, as members died off or moved to the suburbs, worship had dwindled to about 25 attendees.
Meanwhile, about 10 years ago, a handful of Spanish-speaking families began worshipping at Norwood. They asked if they could meet somewhere for a Spanish-language worship service, Menges said, and they were allowed to use the fellowship hall.
Under the leadership of Hermes Pineda, who’s now senior minister to the members of the merged church who don’t speak English, they became Iglesia de Cristo, which had about 30 regulars before the merger.
The predominately African-American Madisonville Church of Christ had been meeting in a recreation center for worship, Jasper said, but it was difficult to secure that facility every Sunday. The Norwood congregation agreed to let the congregation use its building temporarily until Madisonville could find one of its own.
Madisonville had about 13 regulars when Jasper became the minister three years ago, he said, and it had about 80 just before the merger.
The biracial Jasper had always wanted to pastor a multicultural congregation, so when he saw the various congregations worshipping in Norwood’s building, he saw clearly that it was his dream. He soon began telling Pineda and Menges that merger was his ultimate goal.
But it took time to persuade everyone involved that it was the right thing to do, Menges said. He liked the idea because, at 66, he’s ready to turn over some of his workload to a younger person.
"There has always been an open conversation about (a merger)," said Kennedy Heights resident Sharon Draper, who started attending Madisonville about a year ago.
It didn’t make sense to continue having separate services in one building, she said.
The congregations have come together gradually, Draper explained, in several get-acquainted meetings. At first, the idea was simply, "Let’s see if we can come together and all sit on the same pew," she said.
In November, the congregations held a joint worship service that included hymns sung in English and Spanish.
"It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever participated in," Jasper said. "I literally shed tears as we sang the songs."
Taylor Mill resident Bill Schnell had visited the Norwood Church of Christ several years ago. About one year ago, he decided to stop in for Wednesday night Bible study. To his surprise, he found he was the only white person there -- he had walked into Madisonville’s study by mistake.
He got such a warm reception, however, that’s he’s been attending the church ever since. He thinks the merger is "extraordinarily positive" because the merged church now reflects the demographics of the neighborhood, which should make it easier to get neighbors involved.
Since all three congregations sing the same hymns, the major hurdle to a combined worship service has been the language barrier. The congregation decided that on Sundays, the English speakers will worship in the sanctuary, and the Spanish speakers will continue to worship in the fellowship hall.
But every other month or so, the congregation will come together for a unified service, in which they will alternate singing verses in English and Spanish. A translator will be provided so that the Spanish speakers can hear the service in their own language.
Meanwhile, the church plans to spend about $50,000 renovating the fellowship hall and kitchen and replacing the heating/air conditioning system. The plan is to grow the church in place until it outgrows the sanctuary or its 25-space parking lot, which is the more pressing problem.
Jasper’s been talking to local businesses about using their spaces on Sunday morning. He’s expecting "exponential" growth, he said, as people who were waiting to see what would happen to the church start attending.
"We’ve had a lot of people in the wings, watching what we’ve been doing," he said. "We hope to be a model for other churches … Certainly, when we get to heaven, we’re not going to be segregated."
Draper sees the congregation consolidation as a way to send a message of unification.
"I think most people are going to try to make an effort to come together in this country, rather than be separated and divided by race and culture and hatred," Draper said. "So this is a real good opportunity for us to show the world that we are unified in purpose and unified in spirit."