How a Pastor in Suburban Baltimore Diversified His African-American Church

How a Pastor in Suburban Baltimore Diversified His African-American Church

By Patton Dodd

One Sunday morning when Jimmy Rollins was 37 years old, he stood before the church his parents had spent most of Rollins’ life building, and what he saw was a sea of black. The church had a handful of white members and a roster of recurring guest speakers who were Caucasian, but Living Waters Worship Center was a majority African-American church in a majority white town — Odenton, Maryland, a suburb south of Baltimore — and for Rollins, that meant it was a church that had lost its way.

Rollins knew that the church needed to change, and he took to the stage and told the church that very thing. He told them they were going to diversify.

Rollins called a pastor friend in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and asked for help. Could you send some white people? He needed to jump-start this thing, prime the racial pump. He asked a blond-haired white woman to come one Sunday. She sat in the fourth or fifth row, at the edge of the aisle. No one talked to her. At one point in the service, the lights went down and a spotlight shone on her, and she picked up a microphone and began to sing: Sitting in a big black room alone / Tilt my head back, let the tears fall down . . . Everybody’s looking at me / Everybody’s staring at me. It was a revision of pop artist Jessie J’s “Big White Room.”

Rollins dreamed up other ways of helping congregants see the people they normally ignored. One Sunday, Rollins asked two teenaged girls to dress up as hobos and sit at the edge of the church driveway, holding up signs asking for food or money. There’s only one route onto the church property, and everyone who came that Sunday had to pass these white girls before parking and coming inside. During the service, Rollins asked the congregation about the girls — Did you see them? Did you help them? Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you stopped to talk to them? Did anyone offer to bring them lunch? Did anyone see if they’d want to come into church this morning?

In an auditorium of 600 people, three hands lifted to the air.

Rollins let silence hang in the room. Then: “I looked out at them and said, ‘We failed as a church this morning.’”

In the wake of these stunts and other changes, the church lost one-third of its original members.

Rollins made other sudden changes. One week, without warning, he re-designed the interior, changing the light blue paint into an auditorium black. In a church culture where some saw “God’s favor” in the ability to purchase high-end alligator shoes and tailored suits — “I used to wear three grand every Sunday,” says Rollins — he began preaching in t-shirts and jeans. He grew the church’s volunteer ranks and had them wearing red t-shirts underneath their suit jackets.

For a year, I did culture,” he says. “I preached the same message every Sunday, just with a different twist. I preached: ‘We don’t exist for us. We exist for the people who aren’t even here yet.’”

Rollins was in the process of re-launching his parents’ church. Bishop James Rollins and his wife, Varle, who was the co-pastor and main speaker, had given their son their blessing. But it was what you might call a mixed blessing. “We had felt that we were successful in what we were doing,” says Bishop James of Living Waters, which was founded in 1994 in the family room of the Rollins’ home. “But Jimmy said, ‘Dad, I am after a different people. They don’t have suits and ties.’”

I asked Bishop James if it was hard for him and his wife to let these changes happen. He grunts, he pauses. Then he exhales. “Ohhhh, yes. Yes. We had worked hard for this church for years. And now God was asking us to sacrifice it.”

Today, Bishop James leads the senior ministry for the new church, while his wife runs Varle Rollins Ministries. “I could have disobeyed God and aborted everything God wanted,” says Bishop James. “But I believed our son was on the verge of doing greater things.”

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