(Video by Tim Tai)
COLUMBIA — In the pastor's office at Bethel Baptist Church one afternoon in February, laughter radiates from the open door.
Inside, Bonnie Cassida and her co-pastor, Carl Kenney, sit side by side. Their banter is relaxed, the kind that applies to people who have an easy friendship.
“We’re basically twins,” Kenney jokes.
They haven't always been so closely connected. Cassida is white, Kenney is black and they are changing what Bethel's congregation looks like.
In January, the Bethel congregation appointed Kenney as co-pastor, creating a biracial partnership in a deliberate effort to diversify the church.
Cassida said she has never heard of a pairing like hers and Kenney’s.
“It’s sad that it’s rare. I don’t know of any other church that’s doing this," she said.
"When I was in seminary, I took African-American church worship and church history, I told the professor I wanted to be the pastor of a diverse church," Cassida said. "He told me it couldn’t be done.”
Kenney said the scarcity of such partnerships speaks to the difficulty of their expansive vision.
“It says this kind of work is hard," Kenney said. "We fit best within our normative culture. It’s easy to remain locked in what we believe to be safe.”
An established church
Bethel Church on Old Plank Road was built in 1858 with membership in both the Southern Baptist Convention and American Baptist Churches USA. It broke its ties to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1967.
The congregation today is small, with 125 active members and still predominantly white, although Kenney and Cassida said a half-dozen black worshipers have been attending services.
On a gray Sunday morning in February, the warmth of the sanctuary pulled the congregation in through a set of double doors, a welcome shelter from the chilly air outside.
As worshipers walked inside, ushers greeted them and handed out bulletins with the day’s hymns and scripture readings. The co-pastors sat at the front of the room, sharing the space behind the pulpit.
The service began with a hymn, and a small but dynamic worship band played backup to the choir. At the end of the service, Cassida and Kenney flanked the doors, shook hands and gave hugs as the congregation exited. The pastors' teamwork looks effortless, but it is the result of a strong, steady friendship.
Kenney and Cassida met in December 2013 at a lectionary group — Bible study for clergy — in Columbia. At the time, Cassida was experiencing health issues and needed to find someone to fill in at Bethel Church when she switched to part time. She was later diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease caused by inflammation of the thyroid gland.
Kenney moved to Columbia in 2013. He holds a master of divinity degree from Duke University and was named a fellow in pastoral leadership development at the Princeton Theological Seminary on May 14, 2005.
He was invited to help Cassida for a three-month period as an associate pastor in June 2014 and ended up staying for six additional months. He was officially hired on Jan. 10 as Bethel's co-pastor.
Cassida initially came to Bethel Church in 2002 to co-pastor with her husband, David Casto, who died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 47. She studied at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
At the seminary, she said she encountered some disdain because of her gender.
"I can understand how you would read the Bible and see scriptures and say, 'Oh wow, it says women are supposed to learn in silence,'" Cassida said. "Learn in silence really means everyone be quiet so they can learn.”
She didn't buy it.
"If we’re gonna talk about sexism, if we’re gonna talk about rape, if we’re gonna talk about something that people wanna whisper about, let’s just talk about it and be real,” she said.
Kenney is similarly candid.
"I do know that my heart is such that when there's something that needs to be spoken, I will," he said. "Because I can't be anything other."
Conversation about race
Kenney grew up in Columbia and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from MU. Before coming to Bethel, Kenney was a pastor in Durham, North Carolina, for 25 years. He came back to Columbia to care for his ailing father.
He said the choice to join Bethel was not an easy one for him to make. He missed the music and culture of the African-American church.
"There’s a lot missing because of making that decision," he said. "I don’t think things the congregation will even consider because for them they don’t have to."
At a recent potluck in the basement of Bethel, a dozen or more colorful Pyrex dishes weighed heavy with food on fold-up tables — meat casseroles, pasta, potatoes, salads, dessert.
People meandered through the line, taking time to fill their plates, with Cassida and Kenney at the end.
As chatter echoed off the cinderblock walls, Mary Furness, a longtime member of the Bethel congregation, described how the partnership of Cassida and Kenney has created conversations about issues surrounding race and the church.
"There's been a shift," Furness said. "I think it took some people some getting used to. But Carl's great, and I think we're having some important conversations."
Kenney said there has been a transition in the awareness of race issues among the congregation.
"I think the people at Bethel were beginning to understand, probably for the first time, what it means to live with race, to be a black person living with race," Kenney said. “I think many of them were surprised that there’s racism in Columbia.”
Cassida agreed. One powerful conversation starter has been the ongoing protest over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"It’s really easy to say we’re in Columbia, we’re a progressive, well-educated city and there aren’t issues of racism," she said. "It’s interesting that he came and then the chaos in Ferguson happened. So we were kind of forced to think about it."
If Brown had not been shot in Ferguson and the community had not responded so strongly, Cassida said, the congregation might have skimmed over the race issue.
"Instead," she said, "we’ve gotta talk about this."
Facing the issues
Cassida and Kenney both stress the importance of recognizing the question of race rather than denying it exists.
"Instead of saying you’re black, I’m white, we’re all the same, it’s like, we’re all the same, but there are some culture differences," Cassida said. "As a white woman, there are privileges I have, and as a white woman, there are privileges that I do not have."
Kenney said he believes deeply in owning up to the matter.
“I have to say, 'Hey you guys, I’m black!'" he said. "There were people who had a problem with the fact that I would always remind them I’m black. It’s obvious, I’m black!”
When Kenney worked in North Carolina, he said he served a much different church than Bethel. It was a decidedly black church in a low-income area.
"Where I came from was a church that was situated in the heart of one of the most disadvantaged areas in the state of North Carolina," he said.
"Crime riddled, substance abuse riddled, poverty riddled, HIV-AIDS riddled, high school dropouts, all of that. Any malady that you consider, we were in the heart of that."
The difference between that environment and the one at Bethel has been a difficult change, he said.
"When I’m in a place of worship and I don’t hear any of my songs, how do you sing when the songs are not your own?" he asked.
He called it a question of worship but also one about identity — what it means to be valued and embraced within the context of a worshiping community when your music is not affirmed.
"But it’s not a negation on their part," he said, "because they don’t know the music."
Despite being a mostly white congregation, Cassida said there is a mix of political leanings among members.
“One of the things I love about Bethel is we’re diverse,” she said. “We’ve got some really strong right-wing people and some really strong left-wing people when it comes to politics. We have people who are theologically conservative and theologically liberal, and that’s important to me.”
Even with their political differences, members reach across party lines to join in a love of and devotion to service.
“Bethel has a heart for ministry, for people who need it, and there’s a genuine desire to give,” Kenney said.
A mutual respect
Cassida does not want efforts to create a racially diverse congregation to be a one-way street.
"It’s not about being a white church and bringing black people into the church and then we’re together," she said. "It’s about us taking two steps in their direction and them taking two steps in our direction.”
Back in the pastor’s office, the ease of interaction between Cassida and Kenney is almost palpable.
“Bonnie is amazing,” Kenney said. “Bonnie is one of a kind. Bonnie has this genuine desire for the church to reflect the world we live in.”
She credited the lack of ego as part of their successful relationship.
“Neither of us have this huge ego where we need to be number one,” she said. “I don’t need to be the favorite pastor or the one who’s in the pulpit the most."
Kenney said their partnership is important in realizing their shared vision.
"I think we’ve envisioned it in very similar kind of ways, but we also bring our own baggage to that conversation," he said. "That struggle for both would be how to remain faithful to what is truly you while creating space for something totally different."
For Cassida, that mutual respect is an important factor going forward.
“It’s a changing world," she said. "There is the tension of respecting someone’s black identity and not saying that we need to be the same, but also saying that we can interact and work together.
"I don’t want to ask Carl to be someone he’s not, and I don’t think he wants Bethel to be a church that it’s not.”
Editor's note: Carl Kenney will be a regular columnist for the Columbia Missourian, beginning Tuesday.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.