Two Hall County churches tore down traditional racial walls and worshipped together Sunday, defying the division that has fueled racially charged shootings across the U.S. over the past month.
“This is what the kingdom of God looks like,” said Stephen Samuel, pastor of traditionally black St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville, looking over a racially mixed congregation.
And Scott W. Moore, pastor of traditionally white Air Line Baptist Church in East Hall, said of the joint service, “We cannot stop here — this is not enough.”
The idea for a unity service arose after a deadly week that culminated July 7 when five Dallas police officers were killed while standing guard as hundreds of people peacefully protested the police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier in the week.
The gunman, a black Army veteran killed by police, had portrayed the attack as payback for the fatal police shootings.
The violence continued Sunday as three police officers were confirmed dead and three others wounded after a shooting in Baton Rouge, La.
A sheriff's office spokeswoman said one suspect is dead, and authorities said they were unsure whether he had some kind of help.
The shooting, which happened less than 1 mile from police headquarters, comes amid spiraling tensions across the city between the black community and police.
It was that kind of activity that St. John Baptist congregants were decrying Sunday.
Blacks and whites stood side by side in the sanctuary raising hands in worship, singing along with praise songs performed by a choir comprising members from both churches.
“If there was ever a time for Christians to be Christians, this is that moment,” Samuel said to the 500 people gathered at St. John.
Moore initially had suggested the service to Samuel after “some of my congregation had suggested to me that we find some way of expressing our unity in Christ in this community.”
“We’re going to do something to make sure Gainesville doesn’t become the next Ferguson, Dallas or Baton Rouge,” he said in a previous interview. “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 admitted Sunday to being a bit hesitant at first, telling the congregation that he even thought to himself, “Why in the world would they want to come over here?”
“For many, the week turned tragic after Dallas,” he said. “But for me, the week was already tragic after Louisiana and Minnesota.”
But then “God said this is a moment not about Air Line and not about St. John,” Samuel said. “This is a moment about my son.”
“This is the way it will be in heaven, because there won’t be any separations,” said Blake Samuels, a St. John church member nearly all his life, of the service.
“I hope this is not the last one.”
Events of the past few weeks have been disturbing, said Samuels, as he was chatting with a church friend, David Shirley.
“There needs to be more love, because love conquers all,” Shirley said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.