MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- They have a common faith and express it in much the same way, but nine Protestant denominations still struggle after 40 years to become one.
Now, they hope an effort to combat racism will pull them closer together in working for Christian causes that go beyond individual churches.
"It's a way of being church together," said Michael Kinnamon of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "It is a framework for congregations to begin to live with one another creatively."
The denominations represent 22 million followers in white congregations as well as historically black churches.
Called "Churches Uniting in Christ," the denominations include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.
Church leaders will meet this weekend in Memphis to sign a pledge to work together in combating racism. They chose Memphis because it was the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, and this weekend because it falls before the Monday holiday honoring King's birth.
"We'll sign a joint pastoral letter to go to our churches calling on people for a renewed effort to fight racial injustice," said Christopher Epting, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church.
He said leaders of individual churches will decide how their congregations will work for racial justice.
The unity pledge follows the failed efforts for a merger of several Protestant denominations that began in the 1960s with the foundation of an ecumenical group called "Consultation of Church Union."
The merger failed, largely because of slight differences in how the churches conducted their religious and secular affairs. Some of the congregations also feared their individual identities would be lost if they were drawn into a larger church.
Some of the congregations have different ideas, for example, on when and how baptisms are conducted and the role of bishops in the church. Some have bishops and some do not, and those with bishops may disagree on the process through which they are ordained.
Now, Epting said, the new push toward unity will focus on a "communion of communion rather than a merger."
"We would fully recognize each other, exchange clergy and unite mission opportunities," Epting said.
Missions, Epting said, can range from matters of faith and "reconciling humankind to God" to more worldly endeavors such as running homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Churches in the union also would recognize each others' baptisms and regularly celebrate the Lord's Supper with neighboring congregations.
"Christians in the pews know that we belong together because we all belong to the same Lord," the group says in its literature. "Churches Uniting in Christ is a framework for showing to the world we truly are -- the one Body of Christ."
With the Memphis meeting, the "Consultation on Church Union" will cease to exist and "Churches Uniting in Christ" will take its place.
The group's initial focus will be on helping the country reduce racism.
"These churches will begin to do national advocacy together. They will share worship materials and educational materials," Kinnamon said. "And since three of the churches involved are African-American, it really holds the rest of us accountable for a new level of sensitivity."
The Memphis meeting will include a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot by an assassin while helping organize a garbage workers strike.
Epting said the visit will reinforce the importance of the group's mission.
"There was a lot of effort around the civil rights days in the '60s and then there was sort of a sense of 'Well, we've done that now and we've solved that problem,"' Epting said. "Well, we clearly haven't solved the problem."