Originally created 02/16/02

Open-door policy



Smoke curled over a 130-block area in downtown Augusta in May 1970 after rioters took to the streets to avenge the death of a 16-year-old black youth.

Smoke was visible as far away as Golden Camp Road in south Augusta, where Dianne Greenleaf L'Heureux, a teen-ager at the time, watched from her best friend's porch.

The girls - one white, one black - were friends at Glenn Hills High School and at church.

About two years before the riots, the Rev. Edward Waldron, rector at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, invited people in the neighborhood around the south Augusta church to Bible school.

"The black kids came. And then they brought the adults," said Jay Greenleaf of Lincolnton, Ga., Ms. L'Heureux's father, who is white. Some members took offense and left.

"We lost some good people. ... Some on the vestry tried to force the priest out," he said. But others stood up and said "no."

Mr. Greenleaf admitted he would have left if it hadn't been for his late wife, Janet, but he said staying was the best thing that ever happened.

"When you go to church and worship God and say only a certain type of person can worship here, that is not very godly," he said.

Though virtually all congregations in the Episcopal diocese of Georgia today are integrated, St. Alban's is still unusual in that, nine years ago, the mainly white congregation of 200 called a black man to be its pastor.

The Rev. Billy Alford, 49, was born in Sylvester, Ga., to Missionary Baptist parents and grew up in Albany, Ga. After a stint in the Navy, he went back to Albany and to church. "That is when my search started," he said.

It culminated with a visit to a small, all-black Episcopal church in Albany on a Palm Sunday. "The palm branches and incense and these kinds of things I had never experienced before. ... I knew what Palm Sunday was, but I did not know what the liturgy was like," said the Rev. Alford, one of a half dozen black priests among the diocese's 80 clergy.

During his study for ordination, a professor told him that when clergy and congregations are of different races, the sticking point comes, not in the pulpit or when leading worship, but in the private spaces of the family.

The professor said that it is difficult "when there has been a death and the president of the local bank, who is white and who may be emotional, must be comforted by the black pastor. It is very difficult to enter the space when there has been a childbirth and the black pastor comes to pray" in the room of a white woman, the Rev. Alford said.

But this was not his experience at St. Alban's, where he first served as a deacon intern in 1992 before ordination in 1993. When his predecessor at the parish retired early, the vestry called him as rector. "I have been here ever since," he said.

"I found very early on that (St. Alban's) people were willing to come to me with their most private, personal and intimate moments and confessions," he said. "And this professor would say, that is when you know you are able to pastor."

During services, he doesn't count the number of blacks or whites in the pews, but he does try to keep an eye on racial and gender balance on the altar. At gatherings, he chats with blacks as much as whites.

When there are differences or preferences within the parish, it often has more to do with individuals and culture than race, he said: St. Alban's members are from Africa, the Caribbean, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Panama, the Virgin Islands and the United States.

Some of those who left St. Alban's in the 1970s have returned.

Karen Monaco of North Augusta, Ms. L'Heureux's sister, said she likes St. Alban's small size and seeing the children and grandchildren of the people she knew in her youth. Besides "growing up in an integrated congregation, we don't like it unmixed," she said.

St. Alban's is still unique, she said, and that is disappointing because it shows society hasn't come very far.

Yet the ratio of black priests to white corresponds to the black-white ratio among members in the diocese of Georgia.

Slavery and the Civil War split many denominations, including the Episcopalian Church. Though the Episcopal Church reunited, all-black congregations developed for various historical reasons.

In his book, Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights, Dr. Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr., a priest and historian, points out the ambivalence between the church's ambition of racial equality and the difficulty it found in realizing that goal.

Ms. L'Heureux still remembers the trips she and her sister made with St. Alban's integrated youth group.

Closing restaurants in rural Georgia became a game to them, Ms. L'Heureux said. "It was comical to us. But that is a teen-ager's experience. To an adult, it would have been infuriating."

Racial tolerance is greater today, she said, but she wonders how deep it is.

When Mr. Greenleaf was courting his second wife, Kathy, they visited different churches at night. All were locked but St. Alban's, he said.

And in the Rev. Alford's words on the church's answering machine: "St. Alban's ... a church open at all times to all people."

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.