San Jose Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News (CA)
January 29, 1995
A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN UNION OF BLACK AND WHITE CHURCHES LIFTS EYEBROWS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE.
Author: Marilyn Lewis, Mercury News Staff Writer
Edition: Morning Final
Estimated printed pages: 6
THE BEAT is calypso.
The moment is God’s.
“Goodbye world, uh huh;
I stay no longer with you . . . ”
Close to 300 worshipers hum, sing and sway, their faith evident by the upturned palms of their hands.
”Goodbye pleasures of sin,
”I stay no longer with you . . . ”
Pastor Lamont Leonard is at the electric keyboard: lanky, black, intense. Behind him four doo-wop church ladies, two black and two white, sing backup.
Pastor Al Soto, stubby, brown and beaming, is up at the altar, arms wide, smile radiant, singing. He throws back his head, as happy as if he were already on his way to heaven. And, the way he and Pastor Leonard look at it, heaven couldn’t be much better than this.
It’s Sunday, the Lord’s day at Family Life Center, a Four-Square Gospel church whose sanctuary is a room in a business park office in South San Jose.
The congregation, in its present form, is three months old. This makes the worshipers newlyweds, to their way of thinking, since they refer to the joining of congregations — one black and one mostly white — as a marriage.
” ‘Merger’ says, ‘This is for financial advantage or what have you,’ ” Soto has explained. ” ‘Marriage’ says, ‘This is something we plan on doing forever.’ ”
Marriage or merger, the interracial union lifted eyebrows on both sides of the aisle.
The pastors announced the decision last fall. In October 1994 the two evangelical churches — the 125 members of Leonard’s mostly black New Beginnings Fellowship and 350 members of Soto’s mostly white Family Life Center — took their vows.
Various interracial congregations meet in churches around the country. Many joined to share a building or grew from one congregation that reached out to another ethnic community. But this sort of marriage of equals is unusual.
Leonard and Soto had bandied the notion about since they met, in 1993, at the urging of a mutual friend.
Each concluded this was the moment God had made him for. The point, said Leonard, was that all Christians should be “as one.”
”If coming together was just to show society, this was not good enough,” Soto added. “Lamont went to his elders, I went to our elders. Some of them began to cry. I felt a release. This is what I was born for.”
Leonard told his people, ” ‘Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth. What are your fears?’ I let them know that . . . I want them to come with me but I have to move on.”
The news was hard for some, joyous for others.
”We love it,” said Ana Molina who, with her husband, Hector, belonged to the Family Life Fellowship.
”I was up for it,” said Debra Crenshaw, 30, of New Beginnings. “But there was some fear about, ‘Can we really accept this? Can we make it work?’ ”
She, like many of Leonard’s people, was dubious but willing. People clung to the small black church, worrying about losing their culture, identity, gospel music and worship style.
The “marriage” forced him to grow, says Emmitt Lovelace, 33, who admits he had to ask himself, “Am I going to retreat and take my prejudices and sulk about them? Or am I going to lay them on the line?”
He had believed whites can’t know God as blacks did — “You haven’t suffered the way we did.”
But, then “I knew I was saved, when I could listen to a white minister preach,” he realized.
His sister, Yvonne Crawford, 35, also stayed despite initial reservations. She and her husband, Larry, had made a point of socializing with other blacks. They wanted black role models for their small son.
”You take him to a black doctor because you want him to know he can grow up to be a doctor,” Crawford said.
Today, Crawford tells herself, “Now, what I believe is that God is telling me that my son needs to function no matter where he is.”
Still, 20 or 25 black congregants dropped out. A friend told Crawford, “I work around whites all day. When I come home I want my personal life with other black people.”
In Soto’s Family Life congregation — where most were white, some Hispanic and a few Asian and American Indian — “the majority were excited,” he recalls.
He figures 10 or 12 percent “had trouble with it.”
Early on, one white parishioner stopped Angela Leonard, co-founder of New Beginnings and wife of Lamont, in the hall. The big, new, broad-shouldered teen-agers scared her, the parishioner said. “I just had to grab my purse. I thought maybe they were hoodlums,” she told Leonard.
Some whites, like Michael Whitaker, 37, felt confused. His love of church music and his fears about race got all mixed up, he said. He worried about losing the sweet, reflective music that, for him, was the core of worship.
And, underneath, there was also something else: “I just don’t want to feel like I won’t be accepted,” he told Soto, as the two talked until midnight one evening.
Yet, today Whitaker is pleased. “People who are serious about being more like Christ realize that racial things are personal things you need to work on,” he says.
Life in the Spirit
The singing has stopped and Pastor Soto, at the altar, is preaching, deconstructing the calypso hymn to make a point: Sin isn’t half as delicious as life in the Spirit.
He does it with the suavity and bite of a stand-up comic: “OK, let’s look at these words: ‘Goodbye world, uh huh,’ ” Soto says with deliberately clumsy, exaggerated cool.
The congregation cracks up. At the altar Leonard shakes his head, chuckling, keeping up a soft accompaniment on the keyboard.
Church of their own
Lamont and Angela Leonard, childhood sweethearts, came to San Jose so he could be assistant pastor in a Baptist church. But from the beginning, they planned to start their own.
San Jose was far from the tough, isolated South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood where they had grown up. But Lamont had already seen other cultures. His parents, insisting he get a great education, sent him on city buses six hours a day for three years to attend a mostly Jewish junior high school in Pacific Palisades.
”I was the only kid left in school on Rosh Hashana,” he said.
Angela and Lamont attended Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college near Los Angeles. A music education student, he traveled the country with a choral group, visiting white churches and homes.
”I believe it was a divine setup,” he says of those years. “The plan was, all along, ‘This is how other people live; this is how other people operate — just like us, but different.’ ”
Lamont, now 36, and Angela, 35, started the independent New Beginnings Fellowship with 12 others in July 1989 in their living room.
Meanwhile, across town, Al Soto, 34, and his wife, Valerie, 33, had already begun the Family Life Center in their living room.
Soto had come to his faith through trial and error. What was no struggle was an understanding of cross-cultural relationships, growing up as he did in Mountain View with a Puerto Rican father and an Italian mother.
In 1975, his dad, a youth sports league coach, dropped dead of a brain aneurysm at a football dinner. He was 36 and Al, then 15, became bitter and withdrawn. He had been reared a Roman Catholic, but now his mother and new stepfather tried out Protestant churches, taking Al along.
Soto was vaguely interested in church, he says, but he was angry. Drugs and alcohol were more compelling. He ran with a wild group. And yet, one evening, just before he turned 18, he went to a Protestant church, on marijuana. Unknown to him, his mother and stepfather were in the congregation.
”The preacher said, ‘There is a young man who’s been rebellious and the Lord has called him here tonight,’ ” Soto said. “I knew that was me and so I came forward.” He reconciled with his family that evening. Today, his parents are assistant pastors at Family Life Center.
It was at church that Soto met Valerie Little of Sunnyvale, and they fell in love. He gave up drugs, got married and excelled at Bible college while Valerie supported them. In 1984, depressed and stalled, he realized that he had one more big problem: alcohol. Recovery set a theme: healing what he calls broken lives. Working the room
The service continues. Some worshipers stand. Some kneel in prayer on the carpeted floor, faces in hands. There are murmurs. Exclamations.
At one point, people leave their rows of folding chairs to work the room, as they might at a wedding. Blacks, whites, and the scattering of Asians and Hispanics hug, shake hands or clap one another warmly on the shoulder.
Race is just one kind of difference that stands out. One pink-cheeked man who looks like a Dutch burgher hugs a woman with a face ravaged by experience. He wears a crisp, pale gray suit. His silver hair and beard are meticulously trimmed. She has on a big Minnie Mouse T-shirt and dark leggings. When she smiles, radiantly, several teeth are missing.
”I was a heroin addict,” she said. She is Lauri Wilson, 37. After her husband died of lung cancer, she learned about the church from a woman at her trailer park. That was eight months ago. She has been clean, she says, all those months.
Recently, she dedicated her 3-year-old son to God before the congregation. “Seven or eight people stood up and said they would help me raise him.”
Tenuously, strangers like these are feeling their way through the early stages of the new marriage.
As Emmitt Lovelace says, “If you haven’t been used to having relationships with them, well, that’s your first change. What are they like? What do they like to do? Well, they like food. We could have ’em over for dinner.”
Gradually, he said, you notice something: “They are no longer that black person or that white person but they are another person in the Lord.”
John Rush, back, a visiting missionary preacher, and Lamont Leonard, front, one of the pastors of the newly combined Family Life Center, bow their heads in prayer at a Sunday Service.
950129 FR 1A 3; color
PHOTO: BY RICHARD KOCI HERNANDEZ
Debra Crenshaw kneels during Sunday worship at the Family Life Center in South San Jose.
950129 FR 16A 1; colorPhotos (2)
Copyright (c) 1995 San Jose Mercury News