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Aug 28, 2015

Two Beeville Churches Break Barriers

[By Bill Clough, Beeville Publishing Company] In age, they are two years apart. Both are ordained Christians. Yet, they represent opposite ends of both the racial and the denominational spectrum.

One, whose congregation is white, drives a black SUV; the other, whose congregation is black, drives a white sedan.

Each Sunday, the Rev. Clayton Elder, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Eric Tarver, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist, conduct services at churches that are only three-quarters of a mile apart in Beeville, TX.

Last Sunday, they began to close those gaps with an unprecedented ecumenical outreach — a joint service that has those who participated saying it was long overdue. Congregants attended services first at St. Philip’s and then at Bethlehem Baptist. It was a first for both.

The St. Philip’s membership is predominantly white; Bethlehem’s is predominantly black.

“This was the culmination of a conversation I had a year ago with Eric,” Elder explains. “We both agreed we needed to do something to bring our two churches closer together. This community certainly needed it.”

Elder stressed the planning for the services occurred long before the outbreak of heightened racial tension nationwide.

The Episcopal service was at 9:30 a.m.; the Baptist service was at 11 a.m. Tarver, in liturgical robes, preached to the Episcopal congregation and his choir sang the service hymns; Elder preached to the Baptists.

Elder says 90 percent of his congregation attended the 9:30 a.m. service then sat with the congregation at Bethlehem Baptist.

“That was almost unheard of,” Tarver says. “I’ve never seen that happen before. It was a spirit-filled Sunday.”

“We felt we had to do something to break down the denominational barriers in this community and the racial barriers,” Elder explains.

Members of both congregations say they were impressed with the services.

“I think our congregation now sees something that they don’t want to miss anymore,” Elder says.

Speaking for both congregations, he says, “There are some who didn’t even know where the other churches were.

“Everybody felt welcomed, loved and affirmed as Christians in Christ. And they feel the need not to lose that. That’s a victory in and of itself.”

“This could be a springboard for other churches to follow,” Tarver says.

“It was a big change in me,” he adds, particularly when, at the Episcopal service, Elder invited Tarver to help celebrate Holy Communion.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” he admits, “because, never in my life, had I been asked to drink from the same chalice of any priest.”

In the Anglican communion, individual wafers are given to the communicants, but they sip wine from a common vessel.

The two ministers plan similar services at least once a year. “But, neither of us is going to wear robes,” Elder says.

“Someone said, ‘this is like opening a door,’” he says. “Now, it’s our job to put our foot in that door and keep it open.”

Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 361.343.5222, or at .

Photo by Richard Young: The Rev. Eric Tarver, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist and the Rev. Clayton Elder, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, conducted a joint ecumenical service Aug. 16, 2015.