A Tale of Two Churches
United Methodists in Black and White
Our first comparative case study highlights key points of divergence between two churches that share the same denomination—the United Methodist Church (UMC).1 Given their common denominational affiliation, both River Road UMC and Green Prairie UMC are situated near the cultural mainstream of Southern religious life. Methodists in Mississippi and throughout the South cannot boast the market share enjoyed by Baptists. Yet, with approximately 15 to 20 percent of Mississippi’s churchgoing population reporting a Methodist affiliation (Bradley et al. 1992), the United Methodist Church is clearly a prominent force on the local religious scene. Apart from their shared denominational affiliation, these two particular United Methodist churches are situated within a common social context. They are both located in small–town rural Mississippi, a locale in which religious congregations are the central social institution for local residents.
Beyond these general points of similarity, however, River Road and Green Prairie are very different religious congregations. River Road United Methodist is an African American church, while Green Prairie UMC is a white congregation. Moreover, River Road’s pastor is very favorably disposed toward charitable choice initiatives. This view contrasts sharply with the highly skeptical appraisal of church–state collaborations advanced by the pastor of Green Prairie. The narratives of poverty relief articulated by pastors in these two Methodist congregations weave together notions of congregational identity (“Who we are”) and destiny (“Where we are going”) in strikingly different ways.