Jesse McGee points to trophies he won in local marathons. He mentions his work with youth and volunteer school programs. He praises his church's efforts to deliver scripture lessons to inmates.
For more than an hour, the 84-year-old church deacon, who is black, chats about his life, largely ignoring the subject at hand: racism.
It isn't until his wife, Warine, sheepishly shares that their son's wife is white that McGee offers a confession: He had been uncomfortable with the union for nearly 30 years — until his Bible study class offered enlightenment.
His story represents a snapshot of how America's racial landscape is navigated daily, often with religion as guidance.
The issue of race drew sharp focus as Barack Obama's contentious split with his longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, played out in a national glare. In response, the United Church of Christ and National Council of Churches USA called on 10,000 ministers to initiate a "sacred conversation on race."
"The realities of race have not been addressed adequately," says the Rev. John Thomas, president of the UCC. "Racism continues to demean and diminish human lives in this country."
To listen in on that conversation, Associated Press reporters across the nation engaged pastors and parishioners about their individual experiences with racism.
They talked with a choir soprano whose faith fueled her defiance of racist laws, and with members of an all-white congregation that took the risky move of hiring a black pastor. They interviewed ministers who act as a conduit between the alienated and those who would judge them.
They found personal stories, like McGee's, where religion can soothe a painfully sensitive dialogue and help summon mutual respect.
The conversation, which grew loud and rancorous around the Wright episode, started long before and continues afterward, but in softer tones that show the faithful want to be constructive, want to make progress, want their voices heard. Listen.
Root of McGee's concerns
The picture on the fireplace mantel at McGee's home in Jackson, Miss., shows a young man whose cream-colored skin hints at his mixed-race heritage.
It is far more than the likeness of a grandson — the offspring of the union between McGee's black son and white daughter-in-law. For this grandfather, the picture also is a reflection of a black man's spiritual journey through the painful past of a Jim Crow society to acceptance and love that ended at a church altar.
It was 1972 when McGee's son, James Brooks, told him he had done something that was unfathomable in the older man's mind. Brooks had married a fellow graduate student at the University of Michigan — a native New Yorker, and she was white.
The young couple moved to Mississippi that year to teach at what is now Jackson State University. The campus had been the site of racial violence that left two black men dead in 1970.
From the beginning, McGee was beset with unease.
"I had to work on that one. I was raised here, and that was a no-no. I know what would happen to you here if you just looked at (a white woman)," McGee said. "I've gotten past that now. When we started studying about 'one blood' that was a big help."
At New Hope Baptist Church, Bible study classes have been reading about the concept that all God's people are connected. In small groups, hovering over Bibles, members were taught that mankind is descended from Adam and Eve and that blood shed by Jesus Christ is a means to salvation for everyone of every race.
The spiritual revelation has not, however, erased the root of McGee's concern.
"In the South, the white man and white woman have always had more freedom than the black man and the black woman," he said.
Jean Brooks understands her father-in-law's feelings. "He's a wonderful, remarkable human being. If you think of his life experiences: ... he's been to war in World War II as an African-American.
"He's had his share as a Mississippian with race. I think their concern about my race was mostly concern about their son. They didn't want their son to get injured by being seen with me," she says.
Racism "prevented him from having opportunities," James Brooks adds. "Racism is institutionalized in Mississippi."
The McGee family embraced Jean Brooks, and they began where differences should begin: with consideration and respect.
'We do not ignore those realities'
The victim was an unarmed black man shot 50 times on the eve of his wedding. The police detectives acquitted in the New York case: black, Hispanic and white. Like so many who questioned the outcome, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero wasn't surprised by an e-mail asking what he had to say about racial injustice.
His reply, profound in its brevity: "Love."
Salguero shared his response with the multiracial congregation he has served for nearly three years. His wife and co-pastor, Jeanette, translated his every word — periodically switching between English and Spanish as her husband did.
Another e-mail followed asking what the pastor meant.
"It means you are committed to sitting at the table to hear a different narrative," Salguero said. "Listen."
Salguero, who has relatives on the police force, negotiates the minefields of racial injustice and reconciliation with thoughtful diligence rooted in experience. He, too, has been stopped for "driving while brown."
Members of his Lamb's Manhattan Church of the Nazarene climb three flights of stairs in a building that once housed a library to hear the bilingual sermons, a feature introduced by the Salgueros. The diversity goes further: Salguero brought in Pastor Shih Fong Wu, who on the first floor simultaneously leads Sunday services in Mandarin to accommodate the large number of Chinese immigrants in the Lower East Side neighborhood.
Outreach ministries at the church, which catered mostly to the homeless when it was located in Times Square, now counsel a group that contends with legal, cultural and financial hardships and alienation daily.
"When we come to church, we do not ignore those realities," Salguero said in his sermon. "Justice demands that we recognize that people are oppressed and that the gospel is the liberating message."
Calling on a Moses
When San Marino Congregational Church launched a search for a new pastor, it had only one requirement: The candidate needed to fill the pews. The 60-member California church had struggled to recruit new members and was losing some of its most steadfast congregants to old age.
San Marino Congregational needed a Moses. What it found was the Rev. Art Cribbs — a Baptist-raised pastor from South Central Los Angeles. He soon became the church's only black member and its spiritual leader.
It was an unorthodox choice for the Christian church, a tiny, all-white congregation tucked into the quiet, opulent Los Angeles suburb of San Marino — a move so risky, the selection committee polled the congregation about Cribbs by secret ballot despite the church's liberal reputation. The vote was unanimous.
"When we brought it to the congregation, we were definitely very concerned because we didn't know, we really didn't know," said Donald Shenk, a pastoral assistant who chaired the selection process. "Those race questions are often things that when people are given the chance to be anonymous about it, the truth comes out."
Stretching the congregation
Before the 1960s, it was common for properties in San Marino to have a legal stipulation banning sales to blacks and Jews, and until 1989 the city was national headquarters to the ultraconservative, anti-communist John Birch Society.
Yet among the 145 applicants for the job, Cribbs could not be ignored. His audition tape was so powerful, it made Shenk cry.
"It just blew me out of the water. I was sitting there and I just remember thinking, 'Who is that?' I had never heard anybody talk like that," Shenk said. "He speaks from such a truthful place and such a completely heartfelt place."
In the year since he's been pastor, Cribbs has stretched the congregation on topics of social justice and race relations. That's something choir member Holly Ann Burns hoped for when she voted for Cribbs — and it's a perspective she feels will help her understand a hurtful story from her own past.
As a child, Burns' church youth group from the Cincinnati suburbs visited a youth group from an all-black church in the inner-city.
"I was all open and excited and the first thing out of this one girl's mouth was, 'Don't feel like you're doing us a favor by coming down here and visiting us and acting like you care,'" said Burns. "That put a stop to that conversation."
Burns, 56, still thinks of the experience.
"You're getting judged by what you look like," she said. "It really kicked me in the gut. I was really trying to make an effort to understand."
Cribbs doesn't shy from stories like Burns' and sometimes brings up his childhood spent in a housing development in Watts. San Marino's Bible study group is now called Soul Food, Cribbs wears an African jacket instead of vestments and the choir dances in the aisles.
And the congregation? It's grown by nine.
At age 11, Brandon Taylor Sides was caught between two conflicting visions of God.
He spent Sunday mornings with his great-grandmother at a fiercely traditional black church in Chicago that preached homosexuals would burn in hell. Most afternoons, his aunt took him to a church founded by black gays who believe heaven holds a place for them.
He recalls his confusion as he tried to reconcile the two beliefs.
"Somebody has to be wrong," he remembers thinking. "One of these two is wrong."
Taylor Sides, now 21, eventually embraced the message of acceptance that resonated as he discovered his own sexuality. Today, he serves as a deacon at a Christian church that celebrates black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered parishioners.
Pillar of Love Fellowship Church was founded in 2003 by his aunt's partner, the Rev. Phyllis V. Pennese.
Sunday mornings find Taylor Sides transforming a room in Chicago's only gay community center into a sanctuary for the 40 to 120 members and visitors, many of whom fled churches that condemned their sexuality.
"A lot of people have long-term generational ministry; we're first generation," Pennese said. "We're still stuck on getting people to understand that God loves them the way they are."
Pennese, whose mother was black and father was an Italian immigrant, often preaches about race and oppression.
"My very creation was in order to be a bridge" uniting the races, she said.
During her sermon on race, Pennese called on her Christian congregation to speak the truth about their lives and not be silenced by those whites who hate them because of their race and those blacks who hate them because of their sexuality.
Taylor Sides has faced hostility from both groups: white high school students who called him the N-word and black pastors who railed against gays. Surrounded by a multiracial group of friends, he was able to shrug off the taunts and stereotypes, challenging those who ridiculed him: "Do you even know why you feel this way about me?"
Virginia Montague recalls the exchange with a police officer 20 years ago that left her shattered.
Richard, her husband of nearly a decade, didn't come home after working the night shift as a New York City cab driver. By midday, with no word, fear took hold and his wife went to her police precinct in Harlem. A white lieutenant was at the front desk.
"While I was explaining, his attitude was ... like, 'So what.' And he was very dismissive," she says, a tinge of anger still in her voice as she recalls his cold words: "Maybe he's with another woman, maybe he left ... there's nothing we can do about it."
She couldn't help but think that his reaction might have been more sympathetic if she and her husband were white.
Richard Montague was murdered. His wife's insistence that police launch a search in those frantic first days after he disappeared were ignored.
"It's always been in my mind that if he were white, would there have been more of an effort" to investigate, says Montague, now 66. "I don't know."
Returning to the church
White victims seem to win more empathy — from the police and the media, she says.
The slaying, which remains unsolved, and her painful questions afterward about how race may have obstructed the urgency of an investigation, led Montague back to the religion she abandoned 20 years earlier.
She found friends and healing at Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The 212-year-old church offered sanctuary to escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad and it was where Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Paul Robeson found strength from the pulpit. The church has long addressed racial issues openly.
Montague and Versertile 'Versee' Simmons, who is also black, participated in a recent voter registration drive at Mother Zion, where Simmons, 71, was baptized and married. Their discussions naturally turned to the presidential campaign. Both are Obama supporters.
Montague doesn't believe racism will cease to exist in America if a black man were to ascend to the presidency.
Her friend, though, is more optimistic.
"Hopefully, when he becomes president," Simmons said, "the nation will see us in a different light and that we are as capable as (any white person) to hold any position."
The choir soprano glances up from her sheet music and scans the sanctuary.
The curved oak pews, hand-carved by former slaves. The vaulted ceiling, outlined by sturdy wooden beams and converging in the center to form a cross, a star and a circle. The stained glass panels in the pointed arch windows, illuminated by the glow of a setting sun.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is not just Jacqueline Bostic's church. It's home.
The history of the 142-year-old Antioch, the oldest black Baptist church in Houston, is intertwined with the history of Bostic's family. Her great-grandfather, Jack Yates, whose portrait hangs from a balcony, was the first pastor.
And the strength of Antioch's founders, nine freed blacks who started the church just seven months after slaves were emancipated in Texas, is a strength running deep in this 70-year-old woman. Raised in a segregated Houston, she refused to bow to segregation's rules.
As a young woman, Bostic balked at sitting in the back of city buses and sat where she pleased. On a trip to Birmingham, Ala., she once defiantly strode up bus steps labeled "white," much to the dismay of the driver. No words passed between them, but she could read exasperation on his face.
"I felt this should not be, so why is everybody accepting that?" Bostic recalls, with a look that says she would do it all again. "It was not going to be something I accepted for the rest of my life."
'Very special place to be'
The source of her assurance? Family and faith.
Antioch, she says, is "a very special place to be, to be able to worship God in spirit and truth and shut out other things we were confronted with. It reaffirmed my belief that no matter what your challenges are, God gives you the ability to get through it."
One of those challenges was breaking racial barriers during a 32-year career in the U.S. Postal Service.
In 1960, when Bostic first joined the postal service, African-Americans and women were not allowed to rise above entry-level positions. Determined to vanquish those rules, Bostic applied for — and got — higher-level jobs, opening the door for others. She retired in 1992 as a postmaster.
Today, Bostic looks at her four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and hopes they will live in a world where they will be judged by their character, not their color.
But, she fears that may never happen. "I'm afraid they will be subject to the same kinds of things I was subjected to. But I always want to have hope that at some point people will accept each other regardless of ethnicity, religious background, or what country they're from, that we will see that we are all people who are blessed to share the earth."
Until then, she will worship — in prayer and in song.