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New church looks to heal racial divides, both internal and external

On Sundays, rows of chairs, a city made of cardboard, and a praise band transform the auditorium of a local community center into the home of Middle Tree Church.

It's the first church associated with the Assemblies of God to open north of Delmar in almost 20 years. Its website asks, "What would communicate the love of God louder to a racially, socio-economically divided city than a church that truly unites the community that surrounds it?"

It's one man's effort to use a once racially-divided church to help heal a racially divided city.

Morning clouds are starting to break, sending weak rays of sun streaming through the windows on the western wall of the auditorium of the Eddie Mae Binion Center and helping illuminate the 50 or so worshippers of Middle Tree Church.

The Super Bowl Sunday service is the third for this church— a labor of love for Pastor Brian Schmidgall.

The native of rural Illinois says he first felt the calling to plant an Assemblies of God church in St. Louis after reading an article naming the city as the most dangerous in the United States.

"We would run into the city for ball games, and museums and things like that, so I never saw that dangerous side of St. Louis," Schmidgall says. "We just started talking to local pastors and started to see the condition a little more, and it just began to grip our hearts."

So in 2009, Schmidgall gave up his job as a youth pastor in Wisconsin, and he and his wife, Mary, moved with their young daughter to a St. Louis neighborhood that is 96 percent black.

"We just lived here for two years, and just got to know the community and how things were done," he says. "I didn't want to come in and be the guy with answers and 'hey, here's what you need to do,' because I knew I honestly didn't have those answers."

His efforts have worked. The stretch of Maple Avenue where Schmidgall makes his home now has an active block unit. And his relationship with his neighbors did not go unnoticed by Jack Hembree, who supervises Assemblies of God churches in the St. Louis area.

"I went down to visit them, because that's part of my job, and I walked onto the street they were on, and I got out of my car," Hembree says. "People look at me and assume that I'm either one of two things, that I'm a narcotics officer or a preacher. One of the guys grinned and said 'You're Brian's pastor.'"

Hembree asked the gentleman how Brian was doing.

"He said, 'I haven't been to his church 'cause it hasn't opened yet, but he is my pastor and my friend.'" Hembree recalled.

Divided city, divided church

Like the city of St. Louis, the Assemblies of God have a complicated racial history.

The Pentecostal movement, to which the Assemblies of God belongs, was originally an integrated one, says Dr. Joe Newman, an ordained Assemblies minister who wrote a book on the denomination's racial history. But following the formation of the Assemblies of God in 1914, the movement split, with the Assemblies becoming an majority-white denomination and the Church of God in Christ becoming the "home" for African-American Pentecostals. By 1939, the Assemblies were refusing to ordain black ministers, and encouraging them to worship in COGIC churches, a policy that lasted until the 1960s.

Schmidgall wants to address both. He placed his church in a neutral location — the Eddie Mae Binion Center sits at the corner of Union and Delmar boulevards. He plans to reach out to COGIC churches and partner with them. Even the name — Middle Tree — was a conscious choice.

"There's north city and south city, and we want to be life among that division," Schmidgall said. "That's the play on Middle Tree."

Building "Jerusalem"

For his first sermons, Schmidgall preached from the book of Nehemiah, which tells the story of a man called by God to rebuild Jerusalem. He's a man with whom Schmidgall identifies.

"I identify with his heart to see a city restored, and his compassion for a people who were literally defenseless,' he says.  "I see in him the heart of Christ — that's a heart that I desire to have."

But he understands why such a message might rub some the wrong way.

“I came here out of the compulsion to help and to serve because I saw a pattern of everyone leaving, and I wanted to be one of those persons who went in," he says. "I know it can be received as patronizing and I don’t know how to counter that other than just trying to be real."

His message resonated with Sharon Parker, who moved to St. Louis as a girl.

Parker was a churchgoer before finding Middle Tree, but always felt there was something missing.

"It’s just all African American, and my heart and passion is for all nations," she said. "I have been praying for this for five years. The division, and all of that in our city? We’ve got to do something different. Only God could have showed him that."

Middle Tree is receiving praise from Newman, the pastor and author. But changing the Assemblies of God itself, he said, will take more than the well-intentioned local ministers.

"I think Leonard Lovett, a very distinguished African American theologian, put it well when he said you welcome us as your brothers and sisters, but until you welcome us as your brother-in-laws or sister-in-laws, there’s really not going to be much change," Newman said.

Brian Schmidgall knows his young church will face resistance — both to the conservative beliefs of Assemblies of God churches, and to his efforts to break down old barriers.

But despite all that, he says, he remains excited for what’s ahead.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.