MILWAUKEE — Two Milwaukee pastors are combining forces to tackle an issue decades in the making: racial segregation in church.
Dr. Martin Luther King has said, “11 O'clock on Sunday Morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” That still rings true today.
According to Pew Research, eight out of ten churchgoers attend worship services at a place where at least 80 percent of the attendees are of the same race.
“I think the answer to many of our problems is through multiethnic relationships,” Pastor Kurt Owens with UFlourish Church said. “We don’t have to integrate where we live. That can happen organically. But one of the things we have to be intentional about is, we have got to integrate our relationships.”
Owens is very intentional about integrating relationships. He runs four organizations, including UFlourish, that all focus on elements of breaking down barriers of racial segregation. His current congregation is comprised of roughly 50/50 Black and white people. However, he’s making an extra effort to not only have the congregation be diverse, but those leading the sermons as well.
Ronaldo Ghenov is joining Kurt as a co-planter of the UFlourish Church. A Church Planter essentially creates a new church from the ground up. Ronaldo and Kurt, while different in appearance, share a big commonality.
“We’re both pursuing the same King,” Ghenov said. “We’re both after the same Jesus. We both need to have that same humility. Not only us, but the whole church community needs to have that humility as well.”
“We can create platforms where people from different communities and homogenous ethnic backgrounds can come together and be in relationship with one another,” Owens said.
Kurt believes this is the first time a Black and white church planter has come together in Wisconsin, possibly in the entire country. He believes, having a universal safe space where congregants can ask questions and interact with people who look different from them can make a big impact.
“Right now, we’re doing services on Zoom,” Owens said. “So, proximity doesn’t matter. Bringing people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and geographies together. The most important thing is just integrating those relationships and bringing a greater understanding of the other. That’s our problem with society. People aren’t in a relationship with the other. When we’re able to do that, specifically through the lens of the gospel, it just brings everything back to the place it needed to be.”
“I see this as indispensable and crucial to what the faith is,” Ghenov said. “When I look at the work of Jesus and what it is that he accomplished and the people he drew, I just feel like this is in perfect alignment.”
The two men will operate in unison as leaders of the church, making decisions together; both business and multiethnic teaching decisions. They will also talk about multiethnic worship to bring the best of both cultures together.
“We don’t have to battle like the old guard,” Owens said. “We don’t have to battle on the type of music we used to listen to and all of those things because we’re creating something new from inception.”
It’s something Kurt feels will also lend itself to increasing presence of the Black experience.
“When you bring the best of both cultures together, there is not assimilation,” Owens said. “In many of those cases, there are a bunch of minorities assimilating into white culture. We’re creating what heaven is going to look like here on earth.”
Having an intersection of integration in a house of worship is what both Kurt and Ronaldo feel is most important to religion.
“From the opening pages of scripture, there is this idea that what God is doing is going to include all ethnicities,” Ghenov said. “He makes this promise to Abraham, that’s the beginning. When you look at the very end, that’s what heaven is going to look like. We feel like we’re both walking in the teachings of Jesus and I believe in what he is able to do.”
“When I look at someone of a different ethnicity, the color of skin is different, the shape of their eyes are different, or the shape of their nose, the texture of their hair,” He said. “I don’t think, 'oh they happen to be that way.' I look at that as a divine intention. God created them, joyfully, in that way. God did that. So, I’m not thinking, should I like this or not? I’m thinking, the one who created me, created them and that’s who he, in his majesty, designed them.”
Due to the pandemic, UFlourish Church is still operating virtually, though they expect to open up a physical church sometime later this year.
However, the biggest goal for Kurt and Ronaldo is to inspire future Church Planters to start their own multiethnic church. Kurt hopes to see five new churches over the next five years.
“We hope this becomes the norm,” Owens said. “We’ll see more Black and white church planters establish a new church. We’ll see more white and Hispanic Church Planters come together and plant a church. We’re creating the culture.”