Church leader says diversification of Joplin church congregations key to future success

·4 min read

Jul. 16—Rufus Kelly, lead pastor for Joplin's Unity Missionary Baptist Church, took a moment to duck into his office Tuesday afternoon. Upon his return, he held in his hands a framed photo of the church's youth group from 2016, standing or sitting in four rows in front of the historic church building.

While the large number of smiling children always makes him grin, Kelly said he's far more proud of the diversity on display in the photo — Black, white and Hispanic children standing together.

Such diversity represents not just the future of Unity church, Kelly said, but the future of all Joplin-based churches.

For decades, Unity has been labeled one of Joplin's three prominent "Black" churches, along with Shiloh Baptist Missionary and Handy Chapel AME. This division, based entirely on skin color, is a remnant from the turn of the last century, when for decades America was deeply segregated and systematic racism was prevalent in every aspect of life for Black American individuals and families. Leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, public signs indicated where a Black man or woman could legally walk, talk, drink, rest and eat in Joplin, while every facet of society — housing, hospitals, schools, jobs, public transportation and, yes, churches — were divided along racial lines.

In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this issue when he said in a speech: "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning."

"Thankfully we have a few white members here in the church, but we certainly do see (the continued divide) as an important issue," Kelly said. "It's gotten a little bit better ... but it's not as good as it could be. We have a long way to go."

To make positive strides for diversity of people sitting in church pews, positive efforts have to begin with Joplin church leaders and congregations.

The racial divide "has been here for a long time, so we've got a lot of work to do, and I believe the church should take the lead in all of this," Kelly said. "It shouldn't come from the world; the world is doing its thing and keeping things divided. We — the churches — should be the ones coming together ... to get (problems) straightened out."

The good news? "Some of the people here are starting to see that it's a concern, and they are wanting to do different activities that brings everyone together. That's certainly a plus," Kelly said. "We have an influx of different pastors coming (into Joplin) with different ideas, and so that has played a role in some of the changes that are here."

In 2013, churches came together to hold the very first "Unity in the Community" event at Ozark Christian College, he said. It was a chance for congregations of different religious belief systems to come together to benefit the community as a whole. When churches of different denominations — and even different color-dominated congregations — come together in a joint event, only good things can happen, Kelly said.

"We need more of that," he added.

To that end, church choirs — including the talented group from Unity — will perform from 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday, July 24, during the JOMO Jammin' in July concert series. Kelly will also speak, and the Unity Choir sing, during the final day of the Joplin Emancipation "Park Days" celebration on Sunday, Aug. 1. There is also hope, now that churches have reopened after the COVID-19-inspired lockdown, that future "Unity in the Community" type of events can he held.

As for the church itself — located at 615 Minnesota Ave. — Kelly and his flock celebrated its 120th anniversary on June 28. Instead of focusing on the past, however, Kelly is drawing a roadmap for the future.

Aside from beefing up the number of youngsters currently attending church, as well as both embracing and encouraging multiculturalism, the church hope to, at some point down the road, build a new worship center on church property; it could then turn the existing building into either a community building or youth activities center, he said. Leaders also have their eye on establishing in the future a K-5 or K-6 school, as well as a mentoring program.

"I am confident that (the church) will be here for another 100 years," Kelly said, "because it's all in God's hands — and it's his church. I so believe that. I don't really know to what capacity the church will be like, but I do believe it will still be here."

The tenacity of the church's members, who kept the church alive and thriving despite decades of systematic racism, will ensure its longevity, Kelly added.

"I'm not surprised at all the church has been here for this long ... it's because of the people's determination to see it keep going," Kelly said. Previous church members had a vision, he continued, "they wanted their children and grandchildren to have a better life for them, so that's what has kept them going and driving ... to step up to the plate and be able to meet that challenge."

The future, he said, "looks really good."

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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