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LOW PROFILE Leap of Faith

Racial lines blur as Sheron Patterson ministers to an all-white church.
By ROSALYN STORY |

IT HAS OFTEN BEEN CALLED THE most segregated hour of the week: 11 o’clock Sunday morning, when church attendance is stringently divided along racial tines. Even the most integration-minded blacks and whites, come the worship hour, generally opt for a seat beside their racial kin. It is no different at First United Methodist Church of Dallas, where the middle-class congregation is preponderantly white, and always has been. And yet, when Sheron Patterson was appointed to the church last June as its minister of outreach, she was surprised but not daunted.

The first black appointed to the ministerial staff of the 5,000-member church, Patterson is part of the United Methodist Church’s “open itinerancy” program, which, for the first time, is appointing ministers to churches with no consideration given to race. Aimed at encouraging church desegregation, it’s an experiment that seems to be working. For her part, Patterson sees the program as an opportunity for communication.

“Most people in this church don’t have blacks among them that they consider their peers, their equals,” says Patterson. “I’m not their servant or their service provider. I consider myself their equal, their spiritual guide. Just shaking my hand on Sunday morning and having a brief word with me could mean a lot to them.” The church members, she says, have made her feel readily accepted.

“I think it shows the future of the church,” says First United Methodist’s senior pastor, Dr. Hal Brady. “People are always talking about what should be done to improve the way races deal with each other. The church itself should be an inclusive fellowship, and we are working to resolve the polarities that exist between the races.”

The church is also working to improve living conditions for the poor and the homeless, with primary responsibility for those efforts falling to Patterson. She supervises a food pantry dispensing groceries to 500 people each month, oversees repair of dilapidated houses through the Servants at Work program, and organizes tutorials and counseling for the church’s adopted school, William B. Travis Elementary.

It may seem ironic that Patterson is best able to assist masses of poor people from her post at a white, middle-class church, but she doesn’t take the time to dwell on that. There is a hint of her native North Carolina in her voice as she reflects on more immediate concerns, like her work with Dallas’s burgeoning homeless population. “It’s the most depressing, draining thing I’ve ever done in my life,”she says, “not because people are in such despair, but because there are so few resources for them.”

That is why, even as she pours a cup of tea in the comfort of her cozy East Dallas living room, Sheron Patterson’s thoughts lie elsewhere. It is not enough to enjoy the sunlight streaming in between parted drapes, the quiet moment, or even two-year-old Robert Jr., whose photograph looks down from a curio shelf.

The heartbreaking stories Sheron Patterson hears each day are a world away from her upbringing as the only child of a successful North Carolina restaurateur and a schoolteacher. As a student at Atlanta’s Spelman College, part of the Atlanta University complex, Patterson had set her sights on filmmaking as her goal-not the ministry. When fellow student Spike Lee (who was attending Morehouse College) approached her to work with him on the school’s homecoming show, the two began a friendship that has lasted throughout Lee’s highly touted and controversial filmmaking career.

They almost parted company, however, over Lee’s sexually provocative film, She’s Gotta Have It. Patterson found the film’s championing of promiscuity untenable, and felt it sent a morally damaging message to young black women. “I wrote Spike and told him how I felt,” she says. “Black Americans are having a hard enough time with teenage pregnancy and loose living. To promote a film about that and nothing else is not very redeeming for us as a people.”

By her senior year at Spelman, Patterson’s interest in communications became secondary to “an overwhelming desire to be of service to God. I scrapped all my plans for a career in cinematography. 1 heard God say to me ’Use your talents to glorify me.’”

Patterson entered Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in 1981. Those were difficult times. “I felt very alone,” she says. Though her parents are both devout Christians, they were skeptical about their daughter’s career change.

Filled with self-doubt and not convinced she was meant for the ministry, Patterson “bailed out” of Perkins with a master’s degree in theological studies. A job as staff writer for the “United Methodist Reporter” allowed time to reassess her goals. On a visit back to North Carolina, she met Robert Patterson, whom she married in 1984.

But Patterson was nagged by thoughts of unfinished business. Serving as a part-time pastor at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church under the Rev. Zan Holmes, Patterson still felt the tug of the pulpit. Holmes persuaded Patterson she was destined to be a minister. “She was concerned about others and had a deep spirituality,” he says. “I told her to keep the door opened.

God might be calling her to be ordained.”

Patterson eventually heard the call and re-entered Perkins in 1986 with ordainment as her goal. “This time I had a lot more confidence, direction, focus, and enthusiasm,” she says. “I was fueled by God, and I haven’t slowed down since.”

A dynamo who always seems to have room for one more project, Patterson founded Dallas’s One Church-One Child, a program promoting adoption of abused and troubled children and aimed specifically at black church congregations. The program has placed some twenty children in homes since 1985. Patterson also thinks about starting a safe shelter for homeless women and has written a book about ministering to black single adults, to be published in July.

By the time Patterson graduated from Perkins with a master of divinity degree, she had served as campus minister at El Centro College, interned at St. Luke under Holmes, and pastored at Fort Worth’s St. Andrew’s United Methodist. She was ordained in 1989. Her energy and outlook made her a logical choice for minister of outreach, but the appointment to almost all-white First United Methodist was seen as a breakthrough by many and came as a surprise to Patterson. “I didn’t ask to go there,” she says now. “It was God’s doing.”

Robert Patterson, a vice president and corporate trust administrator at Trans-america, was surprised by the appointment, too. Initially, he says, he “didn’t think it was the ideal situation for her. But now I know it was a positive move.”

Robert, who grew up attending an all-black church in North Carolina, decided to show his support for the appointment-and for his wife-by stepping forward one Sunday to become one of First United Methodist’s handful of black members.

“I think it’s very important that these cross-racial appointments be made,” he says now. “After all, that’s what the church should be about.”