NANTICOKE-- --The distance between the two Methodist churches in this Eastern Shore village is little more than a mile. Yet for decades, it seemed as if a great gulf separated them.
One church was black. The other was white. Though the two communities in the watermen's town got along fine, come Sunday, people went their own way.
White families flocked to Nanticoke Road for prayers at the picturesque Nanticoke United Methodist Church. Black families followed the narrow roads east to the equally pretty Asbury United Methodist Church on Hickman Lane.
Then, about 10 years ago, after the two congregations held a Bible school together, a few parishioners decided that they should get together more often, maybe once a month for worship and a meal.
Before long, crowds from both churches filled the fellowship hall on Saturday nights for heaping plates of lasagna and chicken pot pie, then gathered again on Sunday mornings to sing "This Little Light of Mine" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
A decade later, the monthly joint service is a part of life here. But to longtime members of both parishes who grew up in segregated times, it still seems extraordinary.
"I never thought I would live to see something like this," said Mary Cornish, a longtime Asbury member who raised her children in Nanticoke but now lives in Salisbury, about 20 miles away. "I was born in the 1930s. We never had anything like that when we were coming up."
Even her daughter, Debra Evans, was surprised it happened.
"When I was growing up, the schools kind of integrated," said the 53-year-old nurse. "But the churches never did. I guess that's just what the times were."
The Sunday church service - what Martin Luther King Jr. once called "America's most segregated hour" - is still largely homogeneous in many American communities. Steve Laffey, a doctor and retired Eastern Shore minister, thinks he knows why.
"We all have our own language. We all speak English, but we use it differently from church to church," said Laffey, who sings in the choir at Nanticoke United Methodist and also at the joint service. "We're comfortable with our language, we get accustomed to the way it is spoken, and we're not too happy when someone changes it on us," Laffey said.
And yet in Nanticoke, residents say, the decision to integrate was greeted mostly with praise.
Gather for meal
The monthly potluck dinner grew to include other churches in the area, including a white Episcopal congregation and two other small black churches in neighboring towns. Most nights, about 70 people show up, crowding the long buffet table with so many sweet potato pies and vegetable casseroles that organizer Peg Hewison often wonders where she's going to put all of the food.
The effort has brought together longtime neighbors who never really knew each other.
"The fellowship is so great, you know, all of us coming together like this," said Dorothy Eggliston, a 78-year-old resident of neighboring Bivalve who has been coming to the dinner for years.
Growing up on the Eastern Shore, Eggliston said, she didn't socialize with white folks - "all we did was go to work for them," she said.
Maryland's Eastern Shore has not always been associated with racial harmony. Cambridge was the site of riots in the 1960s that burned much of its black business district. North of Nanticoke in the Wicomico County town of Mardela Springs, a councilman provoked outrage in 1992 when he referred to Martin Luther King Day as "Buckwheat's Birthday."
The joint service's founding members say no specific event motivated them. It was just time.
"We just wanted to get together, to worship together, to show that there is love," said the Rev. Anna McIntosh, the longtime pastor of Asbury.
Nanticoke choir director and chicken farmer Earl Beardsley put it another way: "We're all Methodists, so what's the difference?'"
There are some differences. Asbury's service lasts two hours and includes soulful singing, swaying and clapping to a gospel choir made up of members from both ministries, with Beardsley on piano. As she preaches, McIntosh seems overcome by her own words, her body shaking and her eyes closed as she asks the Lord to take care of her family and others stricken with illness. As she pauses, the other worshipers answer "A-men, A-men," and nod their heads knowingly.
Nanticoke United Methodist shares its pastor, the Rev. Billy Frick, with two other small churches in the towns of Tyaskin and Bivalve. Together, the three white churches are the Westside Ministries. The joint service alternates among their three buildings when it's not at Asbury. Frick's service lasts an hour, and he describes it as traditional.
Room to change
Residents still refer to the parishes as "our church" and "your church" or, to outsiders, "the black church" and "the white church" - though McIntosh said they're trying to change that. At the services, families tend to sit together, so a visitor in the back of the church sees pews of black or white. Even at the dinner, where everyone socializes in the buffet line, the tables can remain homogeneous - until Hewison or another organizer comes over to integrate them.
And though Beardsley points out that the only people who initially spoke against the joint worship never come to church anyway, some parishioners from both congregations skip the joint service, depending on where it's held - either because they think it's too quiet or because they think it's too boisterous.
Still, in a town of 400-plus people where little seems to change, several dozen black and white families have been going to church together once a month for the past decade.
When Frick came to Nanticoke from Cambridge two years ago, he was overcome with emotion as he looked across the packed sanctuary at his first joint Communion service.
"It looked," he said, "like the Body of Christ." Even though he'd been in town only a short time, Frick said, he already recognized many of the faces, both black and white. They had come over with plates of crab cakes and macaroni the day his family pulled up in their moving truck.
Song of faith
For the December service, Beardsley decided to try something new. The joint choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," James Weldon Johnson's century-old poem that came to be known as the "Negro National Anthem." The words were poignant.
"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / Let us march on until victory is won."
Beardsley said he had long wanted to add that song to the choir's repertoire, but thought it would be too hard to sing.
"Once we tried it," he said, "we had it."