Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
March 17, 2008 Monday

Leap of faith;
Black preacher at home inside mostly white congregation in Clifton

By Heather Haddon


CLIFTON - The first time the Rev. Reginald Pitts walked up to the wood pulpit in Athenia Reformed Church, the congregation's silent gaze nearly sent him running back down the pink carpet.

Standing before the all-white congregation in his bright tie and pointy dress shoes, the East Orange native preached in the soaring Baptist style that easily fills a two-hour service. He rocked on his heels, stretched his open palms toward the pews and pointed at the congregants.
He called for witnesses. He repeated his sermon's message over and over, his booming voice requiring no microphone.
In return, he heard silence.

The startled, gray-haired congregants did not return one "Amen." For 125 years, their Dutch church had worshipped through quiet prayer and scripted sermons.

But quickly, almost after that first nervous sermon, Athenia members fell in love with Pitts and his exuberance. Slowly, he came to trust them. Through light-hearted jokes and a shared spirituality, they managed to surmount the differences in worship styles that make churches some of the most racially segregated institutions in the U.S.

"I wasn't sure, because of the culture barriers, if I should come back, if they wanted me back," said Pitts, 38, who fills in for Athenia's permanent minister every March. "They took a chance on me. I took a chance on them. And I think that's what faith is all about."

According to a recent nationwide survey, 94 percent of churches overwhelmingly draw their members from one racial group. Neighborhood composition often contributes to racial segregation in churches. According to the 2000 Census, whites accounted for 83 percent of those living in Athenia's Census tract, for example. Most congregants live close enough to walk to the church.

But worship styles - the music, sermon length, its delivery and how the congregation responds - also divide racial groups. So do class and fear of discrimination, pastors say.

"A lot of churches still gather with their own kind of people. It's easier," said the Rev. John Algera, senior pastor of Paterson's Madison Avenue Christian Reformed Church, which intentionally added a black worship style as whites left the city in the 1950s.

Before Athenia, Pitts never set foot in a white church. He and his five siblings grew up in all-black African Methodist Episcopal church in East Orange. But religion never played a big role in his life. Pitts barely passed high school, married and divorced young and drifted aimlessly until setting his sights on playing basketball at Rhode Island College.

After tearing his knees, Pitts became a social worker and started investigating child abuse cases for the state.

In 2001, a pastor Pitts worked with said Pitts showed a fatherly compassion toward his clients and suggested he become a minister. Pitts started attending church. The next year, he enrolled in New Brunswick Theological Seminary to become a Baptist minister. The seminary provides student pastors for a variety of Christian dominations. Months later, Pitts received his first pulpit placement at Athenia.

The church's search committee members remember liking Pitt's energetic style. But they wondered how the congregation's 40 members, most of them elderly, would react to fiery sermons by a black Baptist.

"I knew no one would be rude," said Kathleen Mai, 56, a selection committee member. "But we are a mostly elderly congregation with a traditional service. I didn't know how his style would go over."

That first Sunday in 2002, Pitts waited for shouts of joy that never came. Instead of jubilant gospel music, he sat through solemn organ songs. During the coffee hour following service, Pitts hid in the corner of the formal sitting room.

"It was extremely awkward," Pitts recalled. "It was the first experience where I preached, and no one said anything."

Leslie Kropinack, a parishioner, also remembers feeling caught off-guard.

"We are this all-white congregation, and in walks this black man," said Kropinack, a 61-year-old retired teacher. "No one expected it."

Many Athenia members grew up drinking from segregated water fountains. Some still describe black people as "colored." For Pitts, the experience brought up uncomfortable memories: when his white basketball coach benched him for playing too "urban"; how a Piscataway police officer pulled him over for not using his lights during the day, then arrested him.

Throughout 2002, Pitts returned to Athenia at least once a month. But he feared the silent pews, and it eroded his confidence. He vented his frustrations in seminary class and hoped for a different church. But Athenia leaders kept asking him to return. Puzzled, he obliged.

Though Pitts didn't know it, Athenia members ate up his booming, unscripted sermons, complete with the occasional "y'all." Younger parishioners started attending church to see "Chris Rock," as they called Pitts, comparing him to the lively black comedian. Older members embraced him warmly after services.

"You're never going to fall asleep with Reggie," said Joyce Van Eck, 68, of Clifton. "He's so exciting."

In 2003, after ministering at Athenia a dozen times, Pitts' doubts melted when church leaders sent a letter to his school. Several students had ministered for them through the years, but no one had moved them like Pitts.

"He is a breath of fresh air," stated the letter, sent to the seminary's dean. "(He) brought an inspiring and thought-provoking message to us and infected us with his love, humor, energy and enthusiasm."

As Pitts' professor read the letter out-loud, Pitts cried in his urban ministry class.

"It was Athenia that let me know that God is doing something with me," he said. "It wasn't in my own experience of church that made that clear to me."

After the letter, Pitts embraced Athenia. He began bringing his 14-year-old son to service. Once, he rounded up gospel musicians to give parishioners a flavor of his church.

Athenia parishioners say they need Pitts' ability to relate ancient biblical passages to modern life. He has spoken about his youthful temptations and late conversion to religion.

Last March, Pitts was ordained as an assistant pastor at Fountain Baptist Church, a 1,500-member black church in Summit. A dozen Athenia members filed into the pews Pitts reserved for them. They remarked on the colorful church hats and hundreds of people streaming into a Sunday night service.

For three hours, the Athenia group sang, stood and clapped, the only white attendees sweating along to the service. They proudly snapped photos of Pitts. Then, they stayed for dinner, mingling with Pitts' community over chicken fingers and meatballs.

"We've got him under contract for life," joked Richard Stier, the church's 87-year-old vice president, standing next to Pitts during a recent Sunday. "We love him. He's one of us now."

Reach Heather Haddon at 973-569-7121 or haddon@northjersey.com