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Archive for Saturday, January 24, 2004

Pastor perseveres to lead Lawrence Heights church

January 24, 2004

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The Rev. James Taylor remembers the day in 1997 when he introduced the woman he planned to marry to the members of his congregation at Southwest Park Christian Church in Abilene, Texas.

First he announced that a new member, Cindy Mahoney, had joined the church.

"And also," he said, indicating his fiancee, "she's the love of my life. She's going to be my wife."

The next day, Taylor was fired.

"We can't tell you who to marry," church elders told him after calling an emergency meeting. "But this is unacceptable in our church. You're terminated."

"I said, 'You're kidding. This is a joke, right?'" Taylor recalled.

The problem: his fiancee.

The all-white congregation's leadership had no problem being led by Taylor, who is black. What the elders couldn't accept was that he planned to marry Mahoney, who is white.

"In the one place where you would think there would not be prejudice (a church), there still is," Cindy Taylor said.

THE REV. JAMES TAYLOR, RIGHT, and his wife, Cindy, overcame
prejudice in James' search to lead a church. The Rev. James Taylor
preaches at Lawrence Heights Church, a predominantly white
congregation.

THE REV. JAMES TAYLOR, RIGHT, and his wife, Cindy, overcame prejudice in James' search to lead a church. The Rev. James Taylor preaches at Lawrence Heights Church, a predominantly white congregation.

That all seems like a long time ago.

Since July of 2000, James -- whom many call J.T. -- has served as pastor of Lawrence Heights Christian Church, 2321 Peterson Road. The congregation is predominantly white, with just a handful of black families.

That their pastor is black while most of them are white doesn't seem to be an issue for the church's members. Nor does the fact that the Taylors are an interracial couple.

"It doesn't enter into my thinking," said Sandy Biggerstaff, who served as a member of the church's search committee that hired Taylor. "I know that occasionally you find people who don't like that very much, that they're an interracial couple. It sometimes becomes an issue for outsiders. Once in a while you find that.

"James and Cindy are people who I consider to be friends. We've been in their home, and they've been in our home. If you need help, you can give them a call, and they'll be right there for you."

Turned down for jobs

The Taylors had a long road to Lawrence Heights.

After being fired from his pulpit at Southwest Park Christian Church, James, 45, and Cindy, 39, started a new congregation in Abilene: Christ Community Church.

When Cindy decided she wanted to pursue a doctorate in education, James began applying for pastor openings at churches around the country that had good university programs nearby.

That search took 21/2 years. While James continued to serve at Christ Community Church, he sent his resume to about 150 congregations.

Along the way, the couple encountered discrimination and bitter disappointment -- sometimes because James was black, and other times because the Taylors were an interracial couple.

One particular incident stands out.

James had applied for the position as pastor at a Tulsa church and was eventually told he was one of the top four or five candidates for the job.

James called the home of the man who served as chairman of the pulpit search committee. His wife answered the phone.

"She said, 'Are you the colored boy with the interracial wife?'" James recalled.

"We had to laugh at it, or else we would cry," Cindy said.

Many times, James was told that the decision of whether to hire him had come down to one person in the congregation, who happened to be a major financial supporter.

"One of the top givers in our church said if we hire a black pastor, they're leaving," it would be explained to him.

"This is status quo. I've been dealing with prejudice all my life. Cindy didn't experience it until she married me," James said.

"I'd never lived it," Cindy added. "It's painful."

Perfect timing

The search for a new pulpit drew to a close when James was contacted in March of 2000 by the career-services office of Manhattan Christian College, where he had earned his bachelor's degree.

A letter from the college tipped him off to an opening for a pastor at Lawrence Heights, where the Rev. Rod Hinkle was retiring after 22 years. James quickly responded by calling Steve Koberlein, chairman of the church's search committee, to inquire about the position.

In that call, James -- tempered by 21/2 years of disappointment -- cut to the chase.

"I'm black, and my wife is white. Is that a problem for your church?" he asked the chairman.

Koberlein recalls the conversation.

"I said, 'I don't know. I would pray it would not be.' I said if for some reason it was an issue for our church, I wanted to ask his forgiveness in advance, because it should not be an issue."

As it turned out, it wasn't. The search committee invited the couple to Lawrence Heights for a visit in early April so they could meet the church's members and preach to the congregation.

After the worship service that James led, the committee and congregation took separate votes to determine whether to hire him as the new pastor. In both bodies, the vote was unanimous.

The Taylors are philosophical about their search for a new church for James to lead.

"God was preparing a church for us," said Cindy, who is earning a doctorate in education at Kansas University and teaches fifth grade at Deerfield School.

"God's timing is perfect. In order for that timing to work out, we had to be rejected by those other churches. As long as you are faithful to God, he will prepare the right place for you, the place where you are most effective."

James agreed.

"I don't look at those (other churches) as rejection. I look at those as a God thing, a preparation for where we're at now," he said.

"I love this congregation. This is home. We're not going anywhere."

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