Little Rock is often defined by its divisions. Discriminatory housing policies, urban sprawl and poor planning caused the city to develop in such a way that kept its residents separated by race and class, and these disparities are reflected in Little Rock's schools and churches.
The racial segregation of churches extends far beyond Little Rock. In April 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said 11 o'clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, and things haven't improved much since. According to the National Congregations Study, 86 percent of religious Americans attend churches in which one race makes up more than 80 percent of the congregation. While working as a youth pastor in the mid-1990s at Little Rock's Fellowship Bible Church, Mark DeYmaz began to notice segregation within his own congregation.
"We had this otherwise really great church, but the only minorities in significant number all worked as janitors," DeYmaz said. "That began to bother me."
In September 1997, DeYmaz helped organize the Racial Reconciliation Rally, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine. DeYmaz says the rally allowed him to talk with black churches and communities about the systemic segregation of Little Rock's churches. Those talks helped fuel his desire to create a multiethnic church.
"How realistically do you think you're going to change the community if your church doesn't reflect it?" he asked.
In the summer of 2001, he decided to create the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas. In June 2003, the church subleased the former home of an empty Walmart at 6420 Colonel Glenn Road. Knowing Mosaic needed a permanent place to call its own, church leaders decided in 2006 to purchase an abandoned Kmart near the intersection of University and Asher avenues, seeing potential in the rundown building. They completed the purchase of the $1.7 million space in 2012, and held their first service in the new location in January of this year.
Mosaic is located in the 72204 ZIP code, which is south of Interstate 630 and encompasses some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. DeYmaz, the directional leader of Mosaic, chose 72204 because he wanted to create a "point of destination" within the community.
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Mosaic has become an anchor in the community. After purchasing the church's new space, DeYmaz and his church staff rented out part of it to 10 Fitness. The fitness center, which opened in 2015, now has 6,000 members, making it one of the largest branches of the fitness chain in Arkansas. A gas station and restaurant have moved next door.
Jan Jeffrey, who previously attended predominantly African-American churches, came to Mosaic nine years ago when it was still located in the former Walmart. "It used to be kinda dead in this area, but everything seems to have started building up since we've been here," Jeffrey said.
Fifteen years ago, DeYmaz says the 72204 ZIP code had 335,000 square feet of empty business space, vulnerable to disrepair and attracting crime. According to DeYmaz, the empty Walmart and Kmart stores taken over by Mosaic made up half of that space.
"Today in those spaces, at least 45,000 to 50,000 square feet of that Walmart has three commercial businesses," he said. "The parking lot's full. People are coming and going. Crime's been reduced in that building by 10 percent since we went there."
The church has three different areas of focus: spiritual growth, social justice and economic development. Vine and Village, a separate nonprofit group, supports Mosaic's numerous programs.
"If you're going to transform a community, you have to deal with the economics of the community," DeYmaz said.
The programs within Vine and Village primarily serve the people of 72204. One of them, the Orchard, which Mosaic began in 2004, provides free food, employment counseling and health care screenings to the residents of 72204. The program draws roughly 18,500 people each year — 59 percent of the entire ZIP code. According to DeYmaz, the Orchard is the largest food distribution center in Little Rock and the third largest in Central Arkansas. Mosaic also has programs for teenage mothers and foster kids transitioning to adulthood.
The church recently partnered with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the city of Little Rock for a mobile farmers market called Fresh2You. Rock Region Metro donated a soon-to-be retired bus for Fresh2You; it will bring fresh produce to food deserts, areas distant from affordable fresh food.
"There's a lot of synergy in these programs," DeYmaz said. "The same kids who are in your after-school program, their families are getting food from us, and so you end up knowing the people and having real relationships with them."
On a recent Sunday, Mosaic was humming with life. Church staff attempted to herd kids into the children's area, part of which the church shares with 10 Fitness. Inside Mosaic's main sanctuary was a service you would expect at a megachurch, save for the smaller congregation and Spanish translations of song on the projection screen. An impassioned sermon was received with cries of "Amen!" and heads nodded with approval. Mosaic's members moved together to the percussion of the praise band.
"I like the diversity and the idea that all these different nationalities come together to strive and love each other," Jeffrey said.
Mosaic's 500-member congregation includes a substantial Latino population. One of the church's main programs, the Evangelical Alliance for Immigration Services, works with those needing to confirm their legal status or locate family members.
Joaquin Hernandez, a native of southern Mexico, has lived in Arkansas since 1997, but didn't learn how to speak English until coming to Mosaic in 2009.
"Before, my Latino community and church was just Spanish speakers," he said. "I was part of the people who stay segregated. I feel very welcome here. They make you feel important by who you are and what you mean for God."
Hernandez, who lives in Bryant, is one of many who make long commutes to attend service at Mosaic every Sunday. After gas prices skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, the church opened another campus in Conway, which operates under the wing of the Little Rock location. Three years ago, Mosaic sent one of its pastors to a struggling church in Durham, N.C., to guide its vision and direction. Five years ago, a staff member discovered the website of a church in Coruña, Spain, that copied nearly everything about Mosaic: its name, its message and its goals. Mosaic's leadership team got in touch with the church, and the two decided to merge into the same franchise. DeYmaz visited the church a couple of years ago. Continuing the familial comparisons, he likens it to a distant cousin.
There has been notable improvement in church diversity over the past 20 years. From 1998 to 2012, the National Congregations Study found the percentage of churches with no dominant ethnic group rose from 15 to 20 percent.
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