How Kyle Brooks and Bernard Emerson Started Oakland’s Intentionally Interracial Tapestry Church

Pastor Bernard Emerson (left) and Pastor Kyle Brooks (right) standing in front of Brook's East Oakland house. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)
Pastor Bernard Emerson (left) and Pastor Kyle Brooks (right) standing in front of Brook’s East Oakland house. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

Churches are some of the most segregated places in America. But two pastors in Oakland are trying an experiment — to merge a white congregation and a black congregation into one house of worship, called Tapestry Church.

It all began one day when Kyle Brooks was running late.

Brooks was the pastor of Oakland Communion, a small mostly white church of newcomers to the city. He was attending the Bay Area Clergy Cohort, a social justice conference for Christian leaders, and stumbled into a group exercise after it had already started.

A facilitator had placed chairs in a pyramid shape. One at the front, then two behind it, then three, and four, and so on. The instructions were simple, sit in the chair that represents your place in society.

Bernard Emerson, the pastor of a small black church called The Way, was on time. He knew exactly where he would sit. As a black man in America, Emerson took a seat in the back row.

By the time Brooks got there, there was only one seat left for him to take as a young white man, the single one right at the front. Right at the top of the privilege pyramid.

“If I’m sitting all the way in the front,” Brooks said, “the people I need to be talking to are the people all the way in the back.” Bernard Emerson just happened to be there, in the back row.

That is the “meet-cute” story of their bromance, the one they like to tell. The two started talking and soon realized they were spiritual soulmates. They even quote the same passages from the Bible, like Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “Father make them one, as you and I are one.”

The two men came from different faith traditions. Brooks was steeped in the Christian Reformed Church and Emerson, whose father was also a pastor, was raised in the American Baptist church.

Emerson said they made a conscious decision to put their friendship and shared love for God ahead of any differences in their spiritual traditions. “We decided then that we would be better brothers than we were pastors,” Emerson said.

“The point of the church,” Brooks said, “is to be a display of God’s love for the world. And we can not do that effectively if we do not love each other.”

“It was always the intent of our Lord that the church be multi-ethnic,” said Emerson. But that is not been the way church has historically been in America.

There is an infamous Martin Luther King Jr quote about exactly this, made in an appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press in 1960. “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation,” King said, “one of the shameful tragedies of our nation, that 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”

Things have changed slightly since King said that, but not a lot.

“The vast majority of people who go to church, go to church that is racially and ethnically homogeneous,” says Brooks. According to a National Congregation Study, funded by Pew Research, 8 out of 10 American church-goers attend a congregation that looks just like them.

That was the case at both Brooks’ and Emerson’s small churches. For Pastor Emerson, it was especially true; a lot of his congregants are actually members of his extended family, so they really do look like him.

While that Martin Luther King Jr. quote is often paraphrased and repeated, it’s not all he said that day. “Any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body, is standing against the spirit of Jesus Christ and it fails to be a true witness,” he said. He admitted his own church was also not integrated. It was King’s belief that the church would not, like schools in America, be integrated through legal processes or outside pressure. American churches would only integrate if they decided to do the work themselves.

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