In one of the broadest grass-roots efforts to solve the dilemma of racism in the United States, nine religious denominations are establishing an ecumenical relationship to be known as Churches Uniting in Christ.
The nine denominations, including three African-American denominations, say they will periodically celebrate the Eucharist together, they will recognize one baptism and they will work together to achieve a shared vision of disabling racism at every level of American society.
"The time to live out our unity in Christ and to be a witness for racial reconciliation -- especially at the local church and community level -- hereby begins," said the Rev. Michael K. Kinnamon, director of the new organization.
Denominational leaders, including clergy and laity, will gather Jan. 20, at the historic Mt. Olive Christian Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tenn., to celebrate the new accord during ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the birth of civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The following day -- Martin Luther King Day -- 300 of them will re-enact the march by clergy to City Hall that helped end the garbage collectors' strike 33 years ago. It was that strike that led to King's visit to Memphis and ultimately to his assassination on April 4, 1968.
It was King who said the period from 11 a.m. to noon on Sundays was "the most segregated hour in America."
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young has been at the forefront of the movement and although knee surgery will keep him home in Atlanta, he will deliver the keynote address via videotape at the ceremonies.
"For Martin Luther King's death to bring together the representatives of these churches 30-some years later is extremely significant," said Young, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. "Even though we are coming together publicly, I think we have to also recall that this is something that began almost immediately.
"One of the immediate effects of Martin's assassination was the coming together of people of faith. They came together in their businesses, churches, schools and communities. The difference is these are denominational institutions that now are coming together," he said.
Efforts at some sort of relationship began well before King's death.
Presbyterian leader Eugene Blake called for a merger of several major American churches in 1960. Then a plan devised in 1970 was rebuffed.
A Lutheran religious historian, the Rev. Martin Marty, recalls that an overture to black churches brought the response: "You don't even know us."
"So the effort slowed down a bit for churches to get to know one another," he said.
Kinnamon said he envisions black and white communities becoming close-knit through their churches. He said he once worked in a small town in Kentucky and the white church he attended was only about 100 yards from an African-Methodist church.
"I would think from now on when they have ice cream socials, they would have them together, that there will be regular pulpit exchanges. The Lord's Supper will be held together. When there are prayers for someone who is ill they will be conducted by name in both churches," Kinnamon said.
Kinnamon and Young both say there's still a long way to go.
"We're certainly not saying that we've solved all the race problems," Young said. "In fact, we're admitting that we still have many racial and cultural misunderstandings. To the cynic, though, I would say this: the process must go on and on.
"Repentance and reconciliation are not one-time events; they represent a continual process. It's true, you know, that we Christians are constantly repenting -- but thank God, not usually for the same sin."
Participating in Churches Uniting in Christ are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the International Council of Community Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.
In addition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has voted to become a partner "in mission and dialogue," and the Moravian Church is expected to approve the same relationship later this year.
"That's 27 million people. We hope to have some clout in speaking about race or other issues," Kinnamon said. "Race is a primary concern of this group because of the presence of African-American churches.
"Race divides the churches now more than Reformation-era disputes did years ago," he said. "To unite the churches, you have to talk about race."