Black and White Together: An Unusual Church Merger in Iowa

It started off small, so small you’d never guess what was coming.

Two pastors in Iowa—Rod Dooley of the predominately African American Oak Hill Jackson Community Church and Daniel Winn of the predominately white Cedar Rapids Family Church—met to pray together.

Then they did it again. And again, until they were praying together every week.

The next step was also small, and completely normal. Every once in a while, they’d switch pulpits.

Pastor Daniel Winn / Courtesy of New Life Church

After a while, they decided to do an Easter service together.

Both churches were healthy and growing, and at the joint choir rehearsal the Thursday before Easter 2017, Dooley told Winn about his search for a bigger building.

“Everything we’re looking at is either too small or too big,” Dooley explained. Nothing was fitting quite right.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Winn shot back, “You know, it wouldn’t be too large if we merged our churches together.”

It wasn’t an impulsive suggestion. “I had been thinking for a long time about merging our churches,” Winn said. “But I knew that was a crazy thing.”

Daniel, you’re out of your mind, he told himself. He’s not going to go for that.

For a beat, there was dead silence.

“Are you serious?” Dooley asked.

“One hundred percent,” Winn answered.

“I’ve actually been thinking that myself,” Dooley said. “But I wasn’t going to bring it up to you.”

That’s because healthy churches don’t merge together. Especially not if they’re both growing. Especially not if one is white and one is black. Especially not if both senior pastors are planning to stay.

It’s been 18 months since their first service. The transition has been relatively smooth. Both pastors share the leadership equally. They’re still growing. And the congregation seems happy.

That’s maybe the oddest part. In a small, predominately white Iowa city, the approval to merge was 98 percent—at both congregations.

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is the second-biggest city in Iowa (after Des Moines), grown to 132,000 people by a meatpacking plant (once one of the four largest in the world) and an oatmeal factory (that would merge with three others to become Quaker Oats). Today, about 7 percent of the city’s population works for avionics designer and manufacturer Collins Aerospace, which supplies the same number of jobs as the next three biggest employers—insurance provider Transamerica, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the public school district—combined.

The city isn’t very racially diverse. Primarily settled by white Europeans who built farms instead of cities, Iowa wasn’t a viable option for most African Americans migrating north during the 20th century. At the time of the 2010 census, Iowa was about 90 percent white; Cedar Rapids was a bit more diverse at 86 percent white.

Pastor Rod Dooley / Courtesy of New City Church

So it’s not surprising that the same year—when Cedar Rapids had 88 evangelical, 75 mainline, 18 Catholic churches—it had just a handful of black Protestant congregations.

One of them was Shekinah Glory Missionary Baptist Church, planted in 1993 by James Toney. He stayed 10 years before moving to Texas to start a new church, leaving Shekinah to his youth pastor—Dooley.

Dooley had been bivocational, combining youth pastoring with his full-time job in human resources at Rockwell Collins (later changed to Collins Aerospace). That meant he saw the needs of a wide swath of Rockwell’s 8,000-plus employees.

“He had a grander vision—of black, white, Indian, Chinese together,” said LaShunda McFarland, who joined Shekinah when she was in high school. “That is something God put on his heart.”

Dooley promptly changed Shekinah’s name to Oak Hill Jackson Community Church, making it both easier to pronounce and also easier to identify with the Oak Hill Jackson community it sat in. At the same time, he started talking about reaching out to the whole town.

“We live in a predominately white city,” Dooley said. “If we were going to grow, we had to reach [the white] community as well. That was always on our heart.”

His congregation was game—most of them worked in predominately white jobs or went to predominately white schools or lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, so it didn’t seem too hard to add some diversity to their worship. But white Cedar Rapidians weren’t walking in the door.

If we were going to grow, we had to reach [the white] community as well. That was always on our heart.

“I’d never bring my family to your church,” one white Rockwell colleague told Dooley honestly. “It’s all African American.”

“We became frustrated,” Dooley said. “I felt like, ‘God, I know you’re calling us to do this, but it’s just not happening.’”

About five miles away, Winn was feeling the same thing at the predominately white Cedar Rapids Family Church he’d planted in 2003.

“My vision was to create a diverse church in Cedar Rapids,” said Winn, who had begun his ministry at a racially diverse church in Des Moines. “We had become somewhat diverse, but probably weren’t even 5 percent African American. I wanted to see more progress.”

It felt like God was asking for something that neither church could deliver.

Frustration

But diversity wasn’t the main problem Dooley was working on in spring 2017.

“We were outgrowing our space,” he said. The congregation was pushing 125 and running more and more programs. “We also had multiple levels in an old building but no elevator. We knew if we were going to continue to grow, we needed to do something different.”

One location looked promising, but it fell through. Others were too big, or too small, or didn’t work for the church’s needs.

“God brought a bit of frustration to the process,” Dooley said.

It was that frustration he was sharing with Winn before the Easter service, prompting Winn to toss out the perhaps-unprecedented, clearly impossible idea of combining two healthy, growing churches.

“It was like everybody else in the room disappeared, and we talked for the next 45 minutes about what could be,” Winn said. “We had both been thinking about this for more than a year.”

They went home and told their wives, who both agreed it was worth pursuing. Then they asked their elders.

“They weren’t like, ‘Let’s do it,’” Winn said. “But they thought we should at least begin investigating it.” On that, there was 100 percent agreement from both church elder boards.

Investigating

The investigation phase was the perfect time for the idea to die. Deciding where to worship, or where they stood on end-times theology, or where to place the welcome desk, all could have been deal-breakers. But they weren’t.

“Of course, we went through our bylaws and statements of faith,” Winn said. “And there were a couple of things that came up.”

New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church

For example, not everyone was on the same page regarding the gifts of the Spirit given through healing or speaking in tongues. Some couldn’t get on board with once-saved-always-saved theology. And not everybody agreed on the chronology of the end times.

“The gospel needs to be held in a closed fist—we cannot let go of some things,” Winn told his elders. “But some other things, like healing, we can hold in an open hand. Not everybody is going to believe the same, but I’m not going to drive ministry based on it.”

And in fact, doctrinal questions weren’t worrying the congregation so much as culture questions.

“We knew early on there was going to be differences there,” Winn said.

“Mostly when you hear two churches have merged, it’s really one acquiring the other,” Dooley said. “That’s not been the case here.”

But it could have been. Because even though Oak Hill Jackson was growing to around 125, Cedar Rapids Family was pushing past 250. And instead of finding a new building, Oak Hill Jackson moved into the larger space Cedar Rapids Family already had. And the culture of the town and the state—like Cedar Rapids Family—is overwhelmingly white.

It would have been easy for Oak Hill Jackson to be swallowed up—to be acquired.

New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church

“In all honesty, it was like, ‘Wow, Rod, you guys are making the greater sacrifice here,’” Winn said. Early in the process, he learned that in many multiethnic churches, the white culture is still dominant. And Dooley told him black church culture is so distinct because it was one of the few places African Americans could lead without white interference.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t even consider that,’” Winn said. “And I felt shameful, to be honest, because there’s a sinfulness of white privilege that I don’t even know I’m walking in.”

For Dooley’s congregation, the idea of driving 15 minutes down the road to join with a white church got more approval than you’d expect.

“There were definitely some people who were skeptical,” Dooley said. A handful of people didn’t make the transition. “But overall, we had overwhelming support.”

Some, like MacFarland, were “super excited.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m married to a white guy,” she said with a laugh. “And I can’t speak for everyone. But I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ It was more like, ‘How is the worship going to be?’”

Worship

When Dooley and Winn gathered the congregations to ask questions, they didn’t hear, “Should we even be doing this?” but logistical concerns such as, “Which ministries will we continue?” “Which building will we use?” “Are we going to cut any staff?” and “What will worship look like?”

The combined church—named New City Church because both churches wanted to help renew the city—kept all the previous ministries. They used Cedar Rapids Family’s building because it is bigger (though it was redecorated to make it seem new for both congregations). And the leaders combined their staffs without cutting anyone.

But worship was a little trickier.

Worship at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church

From the beginning, Dooley and Winn were careful to balance Sunday mornings, trading the pulpit between them every other week. (Now, about 18 months later, they’re thinking about doing a series at a time.) They kept both music leaders. And they included Gospel and contemporary Christian songs in each service.

“Even before the concept of the merger came up, our heart was to reach more Caucasians,” Dooley said. “So we’d been singing more contemporary music.”

When the congregations combined, then, most of the people knew most of the songs. But the emotion was off.

A few months into the combined services, Winn told a reporter how much the emotion in the worship experience had gone up and how much he loved it. That’s not how Dooley saw it.

“It’s gone down for us,” Dooley told the interviewer.

Winn was floored. “What? I had no idea.”

“I think culturally black people are more expressive than Caucasians,” Dooley told TGC. “It wasn’t the music—it was the expression around the music. . . . It’s taken some time, but we’ve definitely gotten better. I think it will even more as time progresses.”

McFarland feels the same way.

Fellowship at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church

“In the beginning, the choir and praise-and-worship team were trying to please everyone,” she said. “You had two personalities come in and they were operating like, ‘Oh, I want to make sure you have that’ or ‘Why don’t we just do two of those?’”

That preference, modeled in Dooley and Winn, made the merger work. But without a clear leader, operations can feel jolted at first. Each team—from administration to hospitality to children’s ministry—has to find its way.

“It’s not like, ‘This is the way we do it, so this is the way I want to do it,’” McFarland said. “It’s more like, ‘How did you do it? How do you want to do it?’ Then we come together.”

Over time, the experience—including musical worship—has smoothed out, McFarland said. “We don’t want to do exactly what Oak Hill and Cedar Rapids Family did. We want to be New City. Now when they sing, I don’t think, ‘Oh, that’s an Oak Hill song.’ I think it’s New City music.”

Better Together

For the original congregations of New City, life is better together.

The folks from Oak Hill Jackson still tell each other old stories over coffee in the back, and so do folks from Cedar Rapids family. But they’re also getting to know each other—now they serve in children’s ministry together, and gather for small groups together, and play softball together. They’re dreaming together about using the old Oak Hill Jackson building to set up an outreach center.

Children at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church

And they’re watching God bring them new growth. More than 100 new people have begun attending since New City opened in January 2018.

“We’re seeing people’s lives being transformed,” Winn said. A few weeks ago, they baptized nine teenagers of different ethnicities. When the teens shared their testimonies, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

“People are interacting with people they never would have before,” Dooley said. “In the first few months, it wasn’t uncommon to have grown men from both churches coming up to us after the service with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘This is so great.’”

That’s because the churches were finally walking into the vision they both had of “renewing the city by helping people find authentic relationship in Jesus.

“We aren’t just doing this for diversity’s sake, but for the gospel’s sake and for Christ’s sake,” Winn said. He hopes that the church can be an example to the community—which has noticed what they’re doing—in how Christians behave toward one another.

“We still have discrimination and stereotypes and fear in Cedar Rapids,” said elder Edwin Hung, who was born in Hong Kong. “I love my church because I know it stands for unity, and unity is the heart of God. We know the Enemy doesn’t want unity, and we know part of our mission at New City is to bring awareness of the need for healthy relationships cross culturally, to break down stereotypes, and to serve and prefer one another.”

New City hopes their example will “unlock opportunities for us to speak into people’s lives, to minister, to encourage, and to love people,” Hung said. “God is definitely moving, and we want him to go before us.”

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