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A bridge of the faithful: Progress made to topple churches' racial walls
Challenges persist based on cultural habits, but religious leaders work to cross divide
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Anja Davidovic, Hanh Dinh and Darishone Ellison sing along with the praise band April 5 at Free Chapel Worship Center in Gainesville. Unity has become an emerging topic in the area’s faith community in the past year with pastors of different backgrounds reaching out to other congregations. - photo by Erin O. Smith

‘Our sins are nailed to that cross ... and our disconnectedness is a type of sin.’

the Rev. Stephen Samuel, St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville.


Race wasn’t mentioned during the service, but as white and black hands clasped across pews before the closing prayer, the pastor talked about the Christian response to struggles that bind all people.

“If we’re going to make it together, the only way we’re going to do it ... is together,” said the Rev. Stephen Samuel, pastor of traditionally black St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville.

He was speaking during a community Lenten service Wednesday that brought together several area churches. Bill Coates, pastor of the historically white First Baptist Church on Green Street, delivered the sermon.

Such unity has become an emerging topic, if not a trend, in the area’s faith community in the past year, with pastors of different backgrounds reaching out to each other past entrenched church barriers.

“We want our community to understand that no matter what the color of your skin is, that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ,” Samuel said last summer after his church and predominantly white Air Line Baptist Church in northeast Hall held a blended service.

Pushing that togetherness was a response to racially charged shootings across the U.S.

Today, the big question for congregations is whether such unity can be sustained.

Jojo Thomas, associational missionary for the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee Baptist Association, is hopeful.

“Churches that are less than 10 years old or churches that are reaching younger people predominantly are aggressive about wanting to be more diverse,” he said. “Some of them have more real progress in terms of actual numbers.”

While other churches — perhaps older, more traditional ones — may not be experiencing as much diversity, their numbers are OK when compared to the racial and ethnic makeup of the surrounding community.

Andy Shaffer, a United Methodist Church member who works in Gainesville, has a dimmer view of the issue.

“Will there be some kind of grand moment where we can actually worship together? I don’t particularly see that,” he said. “Reconciliation among churches will be very difficult.”

Shaffer, who serves on the North Georgia Conference’s Commission on Religion and Race, noted that, during the Civil War, the Methodist-Episcopal church “split predominantly on the issue of race ... and particularly slavery.”

“A lot of our historic black brothers and sisters left the Methodist movement and went to other Methodist movements,” he said.

Blacks and whites going to churches reflecting their respective color even concerned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who once called 11 a.m.-noon Sunday the “most segregated hour in Christian America.”

That worship practice “is just a reflection of society,” Samuel said in a phone interview last week. “It’s a reflection of people. ... We like associating with those who look and act like us.”

“What the gospel does is break down those barriers, but that’s not always reflected. We’re all very tribal — all of us. But, of course, the purity of the gospel message is that we have to reach beyond who we are, reaching toward (God) and toward others.”

Samuel said he believes the unity message is especially relevant at Easter.

“Our sins are nailed to that cross ... and our disconnectedness is a type of sin,” he said.

Church diversity doesn’t just mean whites mingling with blacks, although that may be the traditional split. There are many other racial and ethnic groups, particularly Hall’s fast-growing Latino population, that factor into church life.

The Rev. Javier Chavez, pastor of Amistad Cristiana, which grew out of First Baptist, sees challenges within Hispanic churches.

“We have to embrace the different Latin American nationalities that are there,” he said.

But overall, as Christians, “it’s really time for us to bring down those barriers, those racial and discrimination (issues),” Chavez said.

Racial unity and cultural differences in the church may seem like modern themes, but tensions date to first century, as Christianity began to spread from Jewish believers such as Peter to the Gentiles.

Scripture also has much to say on the issue of unity. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul implores Christ followers “agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you.”

And perhaps one of the more well-known passages, from Galatians, says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Most recently, the issue was addressed at a March conference held at Free Chapel in Gainesville by “The Reconciled Church,” a group of racially diverse evangelical leaders. During what was called a “Celebration of Unity Service,” speakers addressed the rash of violence in U.S. cities and other urban problems.

“While there is division in our nation, there is unity in the church and we are hoping events such as this one will be a catalyst for reconciliation in our land,” said Jentezen Franklin, Free Chapel’s senior pastor.

“This is not just an event, it’s a movement.”

Alex Delgado, who is part of Free Chapel’s Hispanic and youth ministries, said he believes “there’s a lot of change going on right now.”

“We’re coming together as a human race — that’s what the whole point is,” said Delgado, who attended the celebration. “There’s one sight, one vision that we should (focus on), and that should help move people forward.”

And the church needs to take the lead in healing racial division, Coates said in an interview following the Lenten service.

“Racial problems start with the human heart, and therefore, the church needs to be involved,” he said.

Easter is an especially key time for that message, Coates said.

“If there’s one thing brings us all together, it’s suffering, and Christ suffered on Good Friday ... and then overcame all that,” he said. “And that’s what Easter is all about.”

Gene Brown, a St. John member attending the pre-Easter service, said denominations don’t matter much, either.

“This (service) is a great opportunity for the community to come together, and I think that through this process, we can make some definite changes — not just in unity, but in the world,” he said.

Thomas said he’s optimistic progress is being made in blurring racial lines in church, and he hopes “it would be true we would see greater diversity at Sunday morning worship services.”

But diversity is more than a census count of races, another set of attendance numbers that be noted in church records.

“The place that would make the most difference for us would be for people on all sides to intentionally reach out and develop genuine friendships with people who have a different history, culture and ethnicity,” Thomas said.

“Those relationships and friendships are ultimately are what breaks down barriers.”