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CONGREGATION PRIDES ITSELF ON BEING COLORBLIND

Some see this merger -- an all-white church and an all-black church -- as a shaky experiment. Some walked away from the congregations doing it. Some await its failure.

But the Revs. Daniel Sturgill, senior pastor, and Darryl Ashford, pastor for evangelization, who brought together the Greater Niagara Falls Church of God and the New Life Christian Center, take a different view.

After celebrating their first Christmas together, they say this is exactly what "church" is meant to be. "This is how the body of Christ looks," said Sturgill, as Ashford nods in agreement.

They view their merger as divine destiny. "Where is there black and white together, trying to break the mold?" asks Ashford.

But that is their exact intention, in the one-story building on Lockport Road in Sanborn.

Both churches are emerging from faith-testing events.

For Sturgill, who has been at the church for more than a year, there was a loss of about 80 percent of his members following the departure of their previous pastor.

"Some had prior been looking to go somewhere else," said Sturgill. "Some didn't recover from losing their pastor. For some it may have been not liking me or liking where we were going. And some just left because."

For Ashford, it was literally getting locked out of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Niagara Falls, where eight members, including three trustees, changed the door locks, keeping him out.

The disagreement centered around several issues including Ashford's decision to temporarily remove two front-row pews for a youth dance group during a service; to start a food pantry and give food to to non-members and to invite people to join the church,according to a previous newspaper article.

For four months, from July to October of 2002, Ashford led worship services outside the church, until he started New Life in another location.

"At one point last summer, I said "You need to close your church and come with us,' " said Sturgill. "We have a lot of the same dreams and goals about what Niagara Falls could use."

The pastors agree that the people, in both congregations, who stuck together during those faith-testing times are exactly the remnant needed for this venture. "Had we tried this in first six months, the congregation would have killed me or him or both of us," said Sturgill. "They weren't supposed to be part of this."

The Church of God has a membership of about 150 and New Life brought 40 into the fold when they merged, officially, on Oct. 17.

Sturgill said that while membership dropped off precipitously, it is climbing back again. "Our attendance is higher and our income is higher," he said. "If that happens after you've lost 80 percent, it has to be of God."

Ashford knew about the Church of God because his 16-year-old son attends its school. But even after Sturgill proposed the idea, Ashford took his time, thinking and praying, he said.

"I have to hear it from God," Ashford said. "Someone could throw me a million dollars, but God has to tell me to take it."

What he was hearing, from some, was that Sturgill just wanted to steal members, to take over his church.

At least half of Ashford's congregation, however, followed him, he said, among them George and Helen Drain. "We were praying that God would make us multi cultural," said Helen Drain. "And as long as the two pastors keep giving us the word as a way of life, we'll be here."

"He brought us from trouble and despair," said George Drain. "He led us through, so we'll go with him."

Most members are new

Both pastors say they are keenly aware of quickly incorporating new members into the existing church. "They didn't have to prove anything," said Sturgill. "I don't want them sitting idle."

Working in his favor is the fact that most members are relatively new. "We don't have this thing about 'you're sitting in my pew,'" he said.

Though he's a newcomer, Arthur Richmond has already become a council member. "The main thing that turned me over is that in this church everything was so warm," said Richmond. "Everything is in God's hand and I'll do my best to be upstanding. Whatever the pastors need, they can call me."

Ashford said he plans to monitor the thoughts and feelings of the New Life people.

"You can't leave the door open to division," he said. "There can't be the thought that this is someone else's church -- this is your church."

Dan Lum, who has belonged to the Church of God for 13 years, is a vocal supporter of the merger. "When heard about it, I said there is no 'what if.' Let's do it. This is a blessing."

The first service clinched it, he said. "The church was rocking. We've never had a choir like this.

"I'm supposed to be a tough guy," said Lum, a mechanic. "The Holy Ghost had me crying so hard. We all had tissues in our hands. When you can't stop the tears, you know it's something else working on you."

Cast aside racism

But it's a challenge, too.

"Ultimately it's a faith thing because you're talking about two pastors, two ideologies, people with cultural differences," said Ashford. "Services are different, the flavor might be different, Sunday school is different, preaching is different."

But differences aren't the focus, said Helen Drain, who is now a greeter at the church while her husband is an usher.

"If you're a Christian, you're not looking at the color of skin of sister so and so," said Drain. "You are coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Both pastors grew up surrounded by racism, they say.

For Ashford it was the Lackawanna projects and a West Indies background that said: "You don't race mix."

For Sturgill, it was West Virginia -- "the West Virginia hillbillies" -- and a racist family that would be doing "back flips" to see what he's doing at his church, he said.

"But God broke the curse of racism for me," he said.

The goal now is to become what Sturgill calls a WIND church -- a Worshipping Integrated New Testament Dynamic church. "This is the windiest place I've ever been," he said of the open 17 acres surrounding the church.

Sturgill said he had no plans to leave his previous church in Canton, Ohio, but he got a call from his supervisor while he was at a Thruway stop near Depew, on his way home from a stock car race in Weedsport.

"That week I'd heard from God that I was going to encounter my destiny," said Sturgill, who is a fan of stock car racing.

"I didn't think it was destiny to come to Niagara Falls and a state where I didn't know one person," he said. "I said I wasn't interested. I was still focused on my race car destiny.

"But long after we're gone, this will be here. This was our destiny."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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