Moments in Memory: The long, hard road to building a multiracial church in Chattanooga

Moments in Memory: The long, hard road to building a multiracial church in Chattanooga

March 17th, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

In this 2010 staff file photo, Bernie Miller speaks to members of the Times Free Press editorial board.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Bernie Miller has spent his adult life as a black man being a bridge to people who are white. His professional career as a radio personality and executive caused him to interact with black musicians and white corporate owners.

When the pastor of New Covenant Fellowship Church on North Moore Road made a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, he was a vice president of artists and repertoire for Epic/CBS Records in New York. Miller's position and ear for music made him a regular contributor to Billboard. He was on the path to success he charted in a Baltimore high school.

Miller has often told the story over his 29 years in Chattanooga of how he was led to turn on his television one morning in 1988 in search of a televangelist. The night before, he had been watching pornography on the television, but now there was Pat Robertson's 700 Club.

New Covenant Fellowship Church

New Covenant Fellowship Church

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"It wasn't on the X channel anymore," says Miller. "The man said, "There's somebody out there in the music industry and you are not fulfilled.' I was on my knees in a matter of minutes."

His life altered, Miller started attending Times Square Church in New York. His first "church" experience was multiracial, and that is what he expected when he moved to Chattanooga in 1990.

"The first church I walked into was all white," Miller says. "It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life."

As a popular radio host on J103-FM and the highly regarded WMBW, Miller found himself introducing black Christian music like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir to a predominantly white audience. Some whites rebelled against the station's owners, but the station's numbers grew as blacks joined his listening audience.

It was during his time at WMBW that Miller felt led to establish the first multiracial church in Chattanooga. With the support of prominent white Chattanooga pastors like Dr. Ron Phillips of what was is now Abba's House in Hixson and the late Dr. Wayne Barber of Woodland Park Baptist Church, Miller opened New Covenant Fellowship on July 7, 1996. The church in Brainerd was in a 57 percent white and 43 percent black neighborhood, Miller's research showed.

It was here, Miller believed, that Chattanooga would see what a multiracial church looked like. It was his hope that it would be the catalyst for a more desegregated 11 a.m. hour on Sunday mornings in the decades to come.

Now, 23 years later, 67-year-old Miller's view is seasoned with experience and Southern reality — yet still plenty hopeful — even as he considers what churches across Hamilton County will look like this morning at 11 a.m. The change he envisioned hasn't come, but might it come to pass before his time comes to an end?

"No, it will not," he says.

***

Reporting on faith issues has a long legacy in Hamilton County's newspaper industry. The Chattanooga Times, owned by the Jewish family of Adolph Ochs, began publishing a "Registry" tabloid on Sept. 9, 1978; the News-Free Press, owned by the conservative Protestant family of Roy McDonald, followed with a bannered "Church News" section on April 28, 1979.

Both papers contained faith-based content for decades before dedicating a section to news about all things church related and the sections grew for the next two decades. The news decisions are consistent with a 2018 Gallup study that showed the Southwest and Southeast contain nine of the nation's most religious states, a list that contains Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

Miller's background in marketing and research as part of the radio and record industry led him to place a half-page ad in both the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press on Saturday, July 6, 1996. He remembers the ad cost "somewhere between $250 and $500." By mistake or divine intervention, the newspapers ran the ad on Saturday, June 29. The immediate "make good" by the paper doubled Miller's promotion of his first Sunday.

The Times' Registry front featured a story about "Christians, black and white," planning a unity walk to bring attention to a series of church burnings across the south. A large headline announced, "Temple renovations complete" in reference to the completion of a new Hindu Temple at the headquarters of the Gujarati Samaj of East Tennessee at its headquarters in the Bonny Oaks area. The Temple remains today. The bottom of the page featured a children's message, complete with a cartoon, by Gordon Bietz, a highly respected president of Southern College in Collegedale.

The News-Free Press' Church News front page featured a story headlined "The Gospel According to Science," a report about a four-day seminar given by Dr. Dean Ortner on "Sermons from Science." Ortner's dramatic science presentations were biblically based and he was affiliated with WBMW, where Miller worked. Ortner, today known as the "Million Volt Man," had presented his demonstrations for Congress, at the Pentagon, at the Olympics and military bases throughout the country.

The News-Free Press religion front also contained a story about a Russian security chief apologizing for calling foreign religions "filth and scum," and he said, "he was sorry for offending Mormons and Jews." There was a brief headlined, "Methodists Oppose Homosexuality." The Times Free Press carried an account on Feb. 22, 2019, that said the "United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly is meeting Saturday through Tuesday to determine where and how homosexuality fits into the church."

Both newspaper faith sections contained the staple of "church listings," although the News-Free Press had 116 listings to less than 30 for the Times. Interestingly, the News-Free Press listed more than 14 different denominations, including one category simply called "Various Denominations."

The front page of the July 6, 1996, News-Free Press (50 cents) included a story headlined, "Presbyterians Back Ordination for Gays Who Vow Celibacy," featured a banner headline regarding members of the Georgia National Guard possibly wearing body armor while working at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The hottest local news topic of 1996 was the discussion of the impending merger of the city and county school systems. The city of Chattanooga had voted in 1994 to go out of the school business and the first joint school board would be chosen later in 1996. The News-Free Press reported on the Hamilton County School Board moving forward with plans to pick a new superintendent the following month. That superintendent would be Dr. Jesse Register.

In this 2011 staff file photo, Bernie Miller, the pastor of the New Covenant Fellowship Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., poses by the future location of the church's raised vegetable garden.

In this 2011 staff file photo, Bernie Miller,...

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

The Times' front page featured a story out of Franklin County headlined, "Automakers Attract Related Businesses to State." The story was about a Nissan engine plant creating 50 jobs in Franklin County in support of Nissan plant in Smyrna, which opened in 1983. The story is one that would be duplicated many times two decades later when Volkswagen located to Hamilton County.

By 1996, the popularity and evolution of the entertainment content was supported by multiple pages in both newspapers. On this day, the half-page television listing in the Times revealed that the prime-time fare for Saturday evening included "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; Walker, Texas Ranger;" and "Touched by an Angel."

A full-page ad from the Chattanooga Publishing Company, the business created to manage the business of both newspapers, appeared on this Saturday thanking more than 1,000 subscribers for financially supporting the Newspapers In Education program designed to promote civics in public schools.

***

New Covenant Fellowship opened in 1996 with a 60 percent black, 40 percent white audience. Over the years as people died or left, the church has settled in at 75 percent black, 25 percent white, with more than 900 families attending there.

"I was naive in a lot of ways. I knew there were prejudices from certain sectors of the black and white communities, but I didn't think the kind of church we were trying to put together would create a negative ripple among blacks, but it did. They would say, "Why would you want to do that. I don't know if I can worship with white people."

Music and production quality have always been the bridges that Miller uses to create an atmosphere that brings different races together.

"I believe that young professionals are very diverse in their thinking and they appreciate all kinds of music. They want a place that uses multimedia. We have tried to do that from the beginning. We have always been a place where music professionalism was important. The music always leads to a clear presentation of the Gospel."

Miller sees more and more interracial couples in his church, and he believes that growing trend will lead to even more diversity in his church. His compassionate stance regarding homosexuality and rigid stance opposing abortion bring people to his church that he knows can be opposites.

"When I see the mixed marriages growing in Chattanooga, that says to me that family structures are changing. More blacks and whites are getting together. These families are looking for a place that is comfortable."

Miller does not see racism in the segregation of the 11 a.m. hour on Sunday. What he knows is that for people to worship together, they must be comfortable together. And, he says, until white and black churches find more ways to work together, they will never worship together on Sunday.

It was two years ago that Frank Ramseur, pastor of Calvary Chapel, invited Bernie to preach at all five of the weekend services. Calvary Chapel is a prominent church located on Broad Street near Lookout Mountain, and the thousands who attend on Saturday and Sunday are 99 percent white.

Miller and around 50 members of his congregation attended Calvary Chapel again in 2018 when Ramseur ask Miller to preach. In return, one of Ramseur's staff preached at New Covenant Fellowship in late 2018.

The two churches continue to look for ways to work together, and no matter how slow the process is, Miller says the intention behind the Calvary Chapel-New Covenant Fellowship is exactly what is needed to break down racial barriers in Hamilton County.

"We have to stop thinking that this is a white church, and this is a black church, or a black pastor leading a black congregation and a white pastor leading a white congregation," says Miller. "Black pastors have to continue to help black folks with any suspicion they have of whites, and that exists. People go to church where they are comfortable, and when we can do two or three things collectively together to build relationships, then things are more comfortable. That's what Frank and I talked about.

"It's been said a lot, but there are not going to be black people on one side and white people on another when we get to heaven. We just must keep working on it. God will sort things out."

 


Loading...