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'Finding Fellowship' depicts 3 racially-segregated Methodist churches coming together

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In the months after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, racial tensions erupted in cities across the country. In Quince Orchard, a small unincorporated town in rural Maryland, a segregated community chose instead to come together. In the new documentary "Finding Fellowship," Jason Green sets out to tell the story of the place where he grew up and how three racially segregated Methodist churches rose above their divisions and merged to form one congregation. Jason Green joins us now. Thanks so much for joining us, Jason.

JASON GREEN: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Now, there were once three different Methodist churches in Quince Orchard - two white churches, one Black church. What prompted them to make this decision to merge?

GREEN: Well, Sarah, it's interesting. So often people get to the merge, and they think that this is a moment of racial reckoning. So these three churches that existed in this rural community had all fallen on hard financial times. You know, Quince Orchard has now become North Potomac or Gaithersburg, Md., and, in many respects, these suburban communities of Washington, D.C. Well, then it was rural communities, and Quince Orchard just didn't have the population that it needed to support these three churches. And they were, frankly, trying to figure out their future. How were they going to sustain themselves on the path that they had been on as these three independent churches? Or might there be a new and different future coming together as one united church?

MCCAMMON: Growing up, you didn't hear anything about there having been slavery in the area, right? But in one scene from the film, a local historian brings in some documents about your own ancestors to a family meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FINDING FELLOWSHIP")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So the title of the document says record of slaves in Montgomery County. And under Sam Higgins, the first name is Matilda Green. It says female, age 28.

MCCAMMON: So Matilda Green, of course, that's the same last name as yours. What do you know about her?

GREEN: Well, Matilda Green is my great-great-great-grandmother. She was married to Gary Green. She was owned by Samuel Higgins. She lived in the same community that I grew up in. What was really moving about that moment - right? - to have those documents in my hand in some respects was devastating. It hurt to just sort of have this institution that you hear about and you talk about, but it just became so real and became so personal.

But I think too often we talk about Black people having been enslaved, but I also saw her in the census records in 1870 and 1880. And I saw her owning property. And I saw her and her husband helping to invest $54 into three acres that would become the center of the Black community of Quince Orchard for the next 150 years.

You really draw strength from that. There's resilience there. There's an investment there. There's a lot of things that they could have done. There's a lot of places they could have gone, but they stayed in Quince Orchard, and they built the foundation upon which I still reap benefits today.

MCCAMMON: Dr. King himself famously said that Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most segregated hour in America. And in many ways, that is still true. I grew up in predominantly white evangelical churches, and these were pretty conservative people. But I often heard white pastors bemoaning this fact that Christians were so racially divided. And yet, by and large, it's still often true. Why do you think that is?

GREEN: It sort of speaks to the role that churches played culturally in our communities, that these are places of comfort and sanctuary, intentionally so, where people can look like me and think like me, and I can find my sanctuary and resolve my fortitude, to go back out and sort of face the trials and tribulations of the day. And the film talks about and showcases, obviously, this coming together of three churches, but I wouldn't say the film is proselytizing for churches to merge. What we are saying is that all of our institutions should be active about pursuing opportunities to be proximate with one another so that we can see each other with basic human dignity.

MCCAMMON: Do you think that white churches, white Christians are willing to do that?

GREEN: One of the things that we realize needs to come from this process is being comfortable being uncomfortable. There's a moment in the film where people talk about using their physical bodies to go and integrate spaces. If there were Black members on the left, Bonnie Heller (ph) talks about going and sitting on the left so that she could use her physical space to fill that gap. And I think that's where we are. We need more people that are willing to get a little bit uncomfortable. So we sit in our sanctuaries and say, well, you know, we're open to whatever may come. Well, how do we intentionally go and put ourselves in places that are different? How do we introduce our families to things that may be culturally new? It's that sort of proximity that allows us to move forward.

MCCAMMON: Jason Green's documentary "Finding Fellowship" is now streaming on pbs.org. Thanks so much for being with us, Jason.

GREEN: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF NUBYA GARCIA'S "PACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.