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Kirkwood's Journey: Kirkwood churches serve as bridges over racial divide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Early in 2007, Mayor Mike Swoboda delivered a candid warning to the Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance: Meacham Park, the mostly African-American neighborhood on the edge of town, was on the verge of exploding, he said, and the white ministers needed to reach out to defuse the situation.

"This could really blow up in our faces," Swoboda told the meeting of all-white ministers representing Kirkwood's mainline churches whose spires rise above the trees that line the town's broad streets.

The Rev. Scott Stearman, minister at Kirkwood Baptist church, remembers Swoboda's words. "There is an onus on the ministers to help us have a better interaction with the community," Stearman recalls the mayor saying.

Stearman and other ministers responded to the mayor's warning. But the clock was ticking down to Feb. 7, 2008. Less than a year after the mayor's talk, Charles "Cookie" Thornton from Meacham Park killed five city officials and seriously wounded Swoboda, who died several months later.

The context of Swoboda's warning was the racial unrest growing out of Kevin Johnson's murder of Sgt. William McEntee in 2005 and the subsequent trial of Johnson for murder. Johnson was a teenager from Meacham Park and a student at Kirkwood High School where he was respected by some other students and even administrators.

In response to Swoboda's plea, Stearman reached out in the fall of 2007 to Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Improvement Association. "We came to Kirkwood in '03 so I was getting a better sense of this racial divide that has existed in Kirkwood... I was taking that initiative because I thought there is something here."

At the same time, Stearman's wife, Cecelia, was bridging the racial divide in her own way. A singer of opera and sacred church music, Cecelia had grown up in Mississippi, the daughter of a minister. She remembers that in the 1960s her father "was threatened ... by some of the other pastors for working with the black preachers. They said you can't represent us if you are working with them. He said, 'I'm going to let God tell me who I'm working for.'"

Fresh from Paris, new to Kirkwood

When the Stearmans arrived in Kirkwood, fresh from a ministry in Paris, France, Cecelia found Kirkwood was "worse than Mississippi."

"We were told we were coming to a diverse church," she recalls. "I just thought it was something like we had in Europe when we had Kenyans, Ethiopians, Swiss people and English people. I just thought it was going to have a lot of different people here. And so I actually was kind of mad when I realized everybody here looked exactly the same."

She quickly saw that it wasn't the fault of the congregation, which had long before broken with Southern Baptists. Parishioners embraced any African-American who ventured in the church. But the segregation of the community remained and depressed her.

"I got kind of sad and got mad about it ... And then I just couldn't stand it any more. I thought we are just so separated. My heart was sad. I wanted to see if I couldn't come together a little bit in something we like to share and that is music."

Cecelia had led a gospel choir in Paris and decided, at the urging of her new parishioners, to start one here. "It was fully because of my disappointment with the segregated place of Kirkwood," she says.

The choir quickly blossomed, attracting an integrated group of singers and engagements around the community. Practices sometimes included racial dialogues. "If I see someone sitting up a little straighter, I'd say, let's address this. I will invite someone to the microphone right then and there. I try not to let it go unsettled. They all enjoy hearing each other's perspective."

Meanwhile Scott was discovering the deep mistrust of Meacham Park toward Kirkwood.

"Certainly you found frustration and miscommunication," he said. "There's just a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration and anger and from a long historical perspective, it is justified. From a short term, it is harder to pragmatically justify. Pragmatically you could say they are much better served by a positive outlook of coming together as opposed to some of the bitterness and rancor that goes on. It's tough. Many are working a couple of jobs, both people in the house are working to make ends meet and there isn't a lot of time for civic life."

Communities' meetings

Immediately after the City Hall shootings, Scott called his new friend Harriet Patton. They and other civic and religious leaders decided to call a community meeting. Patton asked Stearman to host the meeting at his church attracting about 250 people.

It was the first of several community meetings over the spring and fall that focused on topics like white privilege. White Kirkwood residents heard from black residents stories of discrimination, historical and current, that surprised them. A black leader remembered that his sister had been arrested decades earlier for trying to eat at a popular downtown lunch counter. Black parents spoke of the absence of black teachers at Kirkwood High School, with the numbers decreasing rather than increasing.

Another minister who got involved in the community discussions was the Rev. David Bennett at Kirkwood United Methodist. Bennett had taken the risk of opening his church for Thornton's funeral, which spilled out of the sanctuary and front doors of the big church. Then Bennett hosted follow-up community meetings and took a lead in mediation efforts conducted under the auspices of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service.

Back at Kirkwood Baptist, 27 members volunteered in a successful "Believing is Seeing" tutoring program that Diane Moffett runs for Meacham Park children.

Stearman and his congregation drew closer to the Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist church where the Rev. Jeffrey Croft is minister. Croft had told one of the community-wide meetings about his trip to one of St. Louis' most expensive shopping centers to apply for a job. A tall, impressive man he told of dressing up in a suit and tie to apply for a job at Plaza Frontenac. He got out of the car, realized he was being watched by security, turned around and drove away.

After the City Hall killings, Stearman and Croft held joint bible study classes that explored ways the bible had been misused to justify segregation. The two congregations also began meeting together from time to time to worship together.

Stearman reacts to the conventional wisdom about Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. It is true that most mainline Kirkwood churches are mostly white and that most Meacham Park churches are mostly black. But Stearman doesn't see any day soon when the churches of the same faith will merge because of the differences in the way the faiths celebrate their services.

"They have a different style of worship," he says. "They have an energy and a physicality we don't use. They are very interactive and we aren't. So we would subject them to being like us."

The Stearmans see their works as making a difference in "very tiny steps."

"The ephemeral thing," says Scott "the thing that is hard to put your finger on, is the relationships that developed out of that contact" that followed the shootings.

Cecelia adds, "I get sad because I think what am I really doing with this gospel choir. Is it really making a difference?

"At least there is awareness ... Now my people in the choir they'll ride together places. The guys get together, black and white and watch football games. They eat together, they spend time together, we go out together. Go hear jazz together; we spend time together. We're friends. People are putting themselves out there more. As small as it is it is real."

Still, even today, Cecelia finds Kirkwood less integrated than her native Mississippi.

"I had black friends in school. Smart kids. We rivaled each other for grades. I knew good black families. We were in school together. We had respect for each other. At least I was in a mixed environment. And then when I came here there was no mixing anywhere. I'm a member of the YMCA right up the street ... and I'm thinking it's a community effort, it's supposed to have Christian basics and there might be one black person coming through the Y door every hour. There might be one black lady in a class about every seven classes I attend. And I say what's that?

"I really think people just don't see it. That's the way it is and they don't think to question it ... you just kind of go along and it is comfortable and why bother."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.