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No boundaries, just belonging.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

AT UNION BAPTIST Church in Trenton, N.J., parishioners sometimes come forward, hold hands and pray at the altar. Not long ago, a man named Steve Baker took the hand of a 5-year-old girl next to him and bowed his head.

He couldn't help noticing that the little girl was distracted. "She kept rolling my hand back and forth, just staring," Baker recalls. "She sensed something was different about me."

In her eyes, there was. Baker, you see, is white. And 1,000-strong Union Baptist is virtually all black.

A year ago, Baker, a 1990 Junction City High graduate, became the first white minister in the church's 116-year history.

"The experience has been far more than I expected," says Baker, now 30. "To have some guy who's been a deacon for 40 years suddenly calling this wet-behind-the-ears kid reverend - well, it shows the level to which people have accepted me."

Baker's journey to this rare union was, not surprisingly, nothing he'd planned. Along with his parents, Bill and Sherry Baker, he attended Berean Baptist Church in Eugene and, later, First Baptist in Junction City. After high school, he headed to Westmont College, a Christian school in Santa Barbara, Calif., to study communication.

"I wanted to be the next columnist at The Register-Guard," says Baker, an accomplished journalist on Junction City High School's paper, "The Maroon and Gold."

Instead, he wound up at Princeton Theological Seminary. "I wanted to be this world-famous professor," he says.

Instead, after doing some "student preaching," he realized he had a passion for church leadership. Meanwhile, he'd become friends with fellow student Simeon Spencer who, after graduating, was named senior pastor at Union Baptist. Like the church's eight other senior pastors before him, Spencer, 37, is black.

"I first went to Union basically to see him preach," says Baker. "But I enjoyed it so much. People kind of adopted me. Some were interested in who this `white guy' was, but most gave me a very genuine, hospitable welcome."

Baker liked the people, the theology, the spirited "but genuine" worship. He decided to stay. But he also feared that people might misread his intentions. "I didn't want to come off as if I were on some cultural field trip. I was there because I wanted to be there."

AFTER SPENDING a year in South Africa - and meeting the woman he would marry - Baker returned and Spencer encouraged him to come aboard.

"Whatever risk involved was insignificant," says Spencer. "I've always talked and preached that faith embraces all races and cultures. The man had lived among us, worshipped among us, been my friend. It was a no-brainer."

"I knew him to be a deeply principled young man so when I heard the news it didn't altogether surprise me," says Mike Thoele, whose black son and daughter - Caleb and Leith - were the lone African-Americans at Junction City High when Baker was in school.

Baker said it seemed like "a natural step." But if so, it wasn't natural for a country in which 11 o'clock Sunday mornings might be the most segregated hour of the week. Nor for a church steeped in as much black tradition as Union.

"I'm sure there were some in the congregation who were concerned, but nobody bothered to bother me about it," says Spencer, who experienced far more backlash a year earlier when he hired a woman as an associate minister. "The congregation loves and appreciates Steve."

His biggest lesson, says Baker, has been about perspective. "We tend to grow up thinking, `I'm the norm and everyone else is a variation of what I am.' It's interesting to be in a community where I'm nowhere near the norm." (Trenton itself is about 50 percent black.)

Even after being ordained, Baker worried about being accepted in his new role. Then, Spencer gave him a chance to preach.

"I started by telling the congregation that I'd preached before in other churches but this was the first time I'd preached in front of a live audience," says Baker.

They laughed for a solid 30 seconds, he says, obviously enjoying his nod to their spirited worship and frequent mid-sermon cries of "Amen!" and "Take your time!"

It was final confirmation that Baker belonged - not that this happy-ending story is the norm for Christendom these days. But in Trenton, N.J., at least, there's a glimmer of hope. "Our people saw this as a chance to live out what they believe, not because of some legal requirement but because it was the right thing to do," says Baker.

"The whole story," says Spencer, "is an example of faith transcending cultural boundaries."

To both men and their congregation: Take your time!

Bob Welch can be reached by calling 338-2354.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 2, 2002
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