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This meeting of North and South shattered stereotypes for a black student from Philadelphia and a United Methodist congregation in Mississippi.

Courtesy of Chris Brady

 Chris Brady D’06 greets parishioners following worship at Court Street UMC in Hattiesburg,Miss.,where he served with the Rev.Joey Shelton D’97 (right) during the summer of 2004.

For Chris Brady D’06, the Deep South suggested stereotypes of Jim Crow and racial conflict. Just two days after learning he had been assigned to a summer internship in Hattiesburg, Miss., he saw the movie Mississippi Burningon television.  

“I was anxious and uncertain about this field education internship,” Brady said, “especially in a cross-racial setting.” 

But Brady, an AfricanAmerican from Philadelphia, found himself in an atypical setting. Court Street United Methodist, a 104-year-old downtown church, is racially, socio-economically and theologically diverse. It is one of the divinity school’s 15 exemplary Teaching Congregations partnering in the Lilly Endowment-funded Learned Clergy Initiative. 

Nine years ago, the Court Street congregation voted to remain in downtown Hattiesburg rather than flee to the suburbs, said the Rev. Joey Shelton D’97, who served as Brady’s field education supervisor. 

Court Street reached out to the neighborhood, welcoming unchurched children into a new scouting program. Those children brought their parents to worship. A mentoring program paired youth with other church members. 

“These programs broke down barriers, both racial and economic,” said Brady. “It helped the congregation to see that they were not just reaching out to black children, but they were reaching out to people created in the image of God. The children realized God’s love through the church and through this congregation that was willing to be faithful.”

What’s more, Brady experienced his own transformation as church members reached out to him. Before his arrival, he received letters of support and encouragement from the congregation. 

“My trepidation and hesitation subsided,” he said. “The congregation was saying, ‘We want you here. We’re looking forward to you being with us this summer. We hope to nurture you in ministry.’” At a lunch in his honor soon after he arrived, members welcomed him with cards, food and gift baskets, sharing their “genuine hospitality,” and making him feel as if he’d “always been a part” of the church, he said. 

During his internship, Brady preached Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. He and Shelton, who is white, discussed what it means to be African-American in a mostly-white denomination, and how different cultures approach the task of preaching. 

Brady spent time visiting those in the hospital and shut-ins at home, sometimes sitting on the back porch and sipping sweet tea. He visited the Mississippi Delta, where many people, regardless of race, live in extreme poverty.

“It’s daunting,” Brady said. “The church must welcome people, not seeing them as a project, but as persons of worth made in the image of God.”

The racial reconciliation at Court Street became a model that helped Brady conquer his own fears. “Court Street is tearing down the walls of shame that were erected as result of racial and class divisions. The church is really doing the hard work of reconciliation, which can only be brought about through Christ—not human effort, but Holy Spirit power.”

Brady was not the only one changed by his experience at Court Street.  Shelton said the entire church was affected. 

“He spoke in a way to our African-American members that I cannot,” Shelton said. “He spoke in a way to our white members that I cannot. He bridged a lot of gaps. He was a breath of fresh air.” 

Shelton and his wife, the Rev. Connie Shelton D’97, are the new co-directors of field education at the divinity school. They moved to Durham in January with their two daughters, Bailey, 6, and Jessica, 2. 

Lisa Schubert D’05 majored in journalism and French at Indiana University. She plans to return to the South Indiana Conference of the UMC to pastor a church after she graduates in May.  

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School