Enacting Race Reconciliation for an Eternal Impact

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week, I published an article on the importance of collaboration.  This week’s article is on collaboration of a different kind: Working together in a culture of distrust.

We start with the facts.  Rockdale County has experienced a major demographic shift in the last ten years.

If my memory serves me correct, the county consisted of nearly 80% Caucasian residents as of the 2000 census.

By 2010, that number shifted dramatically.  Now, the county is made up of approximately 49% African American and 48% “white” residents.  If you only take “all-white/non-hispanic” residents, the percentage decreases to just over 37% of the county’s population.

This shift has created some tensions within our neighborhoods, although not as profound as what other counties in our nation have experienced.

In fact, community development, economic stability, and recreation in Rockdale has remained largely undisturbed aside from more traffic on the roads (the result of an improving economy).

Our local government, churches, and businesses have done a good job of integrating and reflecting the reality of our neighborhoods.  We do not have a “Ferguson” problem in which one race dominates over another.  And, although government agencies are not always in harmony with one another, things get done quite efficiently–as efficiently as can be expected, at least.

Yet, it is also not a secret that race relations have been strained despite the good efforts of public and private sector efforts.  Regardless of schools and agencies still being rated among the best in the state, there is a still an undercurrent of distrust and (in some cases) fear within communities where segregation persists.

We can see this in the opinion columns in the local newspaper, for instance.  Many people insist that Rockdale County is becoming a hotbed for crime and perceive this community as a place of hostility in the wake of racial change.

The facts, once again, do not fit this erroneous worldview:  Crime rates have actually decreased over the last two years.

Participation in the non-profit sector by the entire community is vibrant and flourishing.  Hospitality, not hostility, has created an environment that I am proud of and that my family enjoys.

This type of trust-building, bridge-building ethos must be intentional.  No person — and no organization — is an island, and we must constantly work to reflect our neighborhoods in our rate of integration and partnerships.

This Sunday, as many celebrate Memorial Day at home and Pentecost at church, we are doing just that.  Trinity Baptist Church and its immediate neighbor, Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, will come together for a joint worship service that acknowledges our unity in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s transformative power.

We will read Acts 2 together, which tells the story of the Holy Spirit bringing Christians together from various cultures to birth the church.  We will worship, preach, and fellowship based on this theme.

Although it will last a little over an hour, it will impact our neighborhood with eternal significance: We will stand united in reaching our community for Christ.

This is important now more than ever.  Historically, Trinity Baptist Church has been primarily a “white” congregation, whereas Old Pleasant Hill Baptist has been primarily African American.  Even economic differences have kept these two churches worlds apart although they sit across the street from one another.

Sunday will not be the first joint worship we shared together, but it will be the first in recent memory in which strained race relations have made national news.

In worshiping together, we say that God is One over all creation, and that no one community speaks on God’s behalf.  We boldly declare that, although our worship services may flow differently and our preaching styles vary, we still have a unique and singular mission to reach a community in which 70% of the population is unchurched.

There is only one heaven in which we all share, and only one mission God has given.

We hope you will join us in this effort.  Worship begins at 11 AM at Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, and we welcome all who are seeking after God’s own heart in this time and place.

Community Reconciliation and the art of truthtelling

fountainBy Joe LaGuardia and Karen Woods

When I was in seminary, a professor once opined that it takes three years for a church to trust a new pastor.  I politely told him that his information was out of date.  It takes about six years nowadays.

This was in the early years of the new millennium and, since then, I have experienced a growing deficit of trust in many sectors of society.  We no longer trust church, government, neighbors, and, in some cases, first responders.

We tell people that trust must be earned, but then we continue to label people according to stereotypes.  Distrust multiplies exponentially as a result.

In the last six months, we have seen how distrust can have a detrimental–even fatal–effect in community.  Protests, violence, and the killing of innocent citizens and police officers bear horrific testimony to the lack of trust, trust that people once took for granted.

In honor of Black History Month, this and next week’s column explores creative ways to enact reconciliation and collaboration in our own neck of the woods.  To do so, I have asked our Associate Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Karen Woods, to help write these columns.

Our question is a simple one: How might we be the “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in a time when distrust breeds disharmony and violence in community?

We believe that Rockdale County is effective at building harmonious communities, so we are already at an advantage.

We’ve seen collaboration among churches, nonprofits, and governmental agencies come together. Family Promise of Newrock, for instance, is a non-profit ministry that effectively bridges various divides by combating homelessness in our neighborhood.

We also had many conversations with clergy and lay leaders who value peacemaking over and against fear-mongering and exclusion, like the one on race relations hosted by Discover Point Church last month.

Even in the midst of this hard work of bridging racial, religious, and economic divides, however, there is more work to be done.

Ambassadors of reconciliation are in the business of “truth-telling” and “truth-listening”: The events surrounding Ferguson, Staten Island, and Minister Woods’ birthplace, Cleveland, demonstrate that more effort is needed in our communities to foster mutual conversation that encourages understanding and level-headed dialogue.

Trust cannot become a community’s most cherished value when people insist on keeping one another at arms length and talking over each other.  For far too long, neighbors have stereotyped one another and formed opinions based on those caricatures.   Truth-telling based on reality, not vitriol, breaks down barriers.

Listening sows seeds of understanding and respect.

Dialogue deals with how we describe changes in our community; which, when done so negatively, perpetuates division between neighbors who are more alike than they think.

For instance, we have heard it said, quite negatively, that Rockdale County is becoming like Dekalb County.  These comments have racist undercurrents that unfairly connects a growing minority-majority population in our community with random crime and controversy we read about in the newspaper.

The assumption is that the more African Americans move into the county, the higher the crime rate.  This assumption is unfounded; in fact, crime is lower now than in years past.

A false perception is based on stereotypes that damage people of color and cast a shadow of fear and distrust on hard-working families who are buying new homes, opening creative businesses, and participating in a wonderful school system.

It increases fear among the entire populace and sows seeds of discord even in the midst of valuable relationships.  We simply fear what we do not know, and the fewer relationships with have with our neighbors, the more violently we will react based on stereotypes rather than facts.

An effort to enact biblical reconciliation, however, overcomes this temptation and provides truthful ways of deepening–not widening–relationships in a local community.

Trust, therefore, begins when we tell the truth about evil actions that include: (1) stereotyping people who are different, (2) spreading vitriolic beliefs that have racial undertones, and (3) perpetuating fear by promoting falsehoods that do not honor all people who are made in God’s image.

Karen Woods is associate pastor of missions and outreach at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

Youth-soccer-indiana

With violence overwhelming Paris in the last few weeks, a half-dozen police officers and ever more innocent citizens shot dead across the nation, genocide in Nigeria, Cuban people held in political hostage by a perplexed, American Congress in gridlock, and a controversy over a Muslim call to prayer at Duke University that incited the Reverend Franklin Graham to opine that Duke’s inclusive policy is a form of affirming Islamic extremism, it seems that peace is hard to come by these days.

Not four weeks out from Christmas, a time when we ask for God to bring peace on earth, we see the worst of humanity plague politics, communities, and nations across the globe. I fear that our only hope for peace lies, not with those of us who are old enough to understand the hymns of peace that we sing, but with the next generation who have the power to craft a future not divided by race, culture, or religion.

This is what happened last month in Haifa, the northern-most coastal territory of Israel, when 200 children from different cultures and religions gathered to play a game of soccer.

It was December 15th, and the event was organized by the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.  The event was intentional and brought together various soccer leagues from Jewish, Muslim, and Druz communities in honor of the 1914 Christmas Truce of World War 1.

The children knew full well the significance of the event, and they rallied enough support from parents, other professional soccer players, and politicians to make the event a historic day for Israel-Palestinian relations.

Melanie Lidman, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, documented the story and quoted Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab-Israeli soccer announcer as saying, “Here, we have an island of equality, and we need to develop projects like this…especially at this age.”

A few children were also interviewed.  One child, age 11, stated that he wanted to play in the tournament to meet new people and make new friends.

While we adults cower, react, respond, and act out in fear, our children have an uncanny way of building friendships across barriers and seeing the humanity in those who are different than they.  We need to learn from their example.

All of this took place near Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), a series of caves that acted as Elisha’s spiritual retreat center (2 Kings 2:25; 4:25); and a symbol of beauty for the author of Song of Solomon (7:5).

Not very far from that location, near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus challenged his disciples to follow in the footsteps of children: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).

Humility is something that we Christians are called to model, but we have to recognize that it is not a virtue we can force on others.  There will always be people who seek destruction, violence, and vitriol as a means to a dastardly end; if we respond in kind, then we are no different and humility will escape us.  God only holds us responsible for our holiness and our reactions to others.

A week after the protests and controversy at Ferguson related to the killing of Michael Brown, a group of us asked the youth at our church what they thought about race relations.  The children–ranging in ages from 11 to 15 years old–were clueless as to why such conflict between the races even existed.

One white youth who has an African-American best friend said that all of the people he knows at school have moved past issues related to race, sexual orientation, and even religion.  It seems that those conflicts are our problems, not his and his friends.

On that Israeli coastal plain half-way around the world, we see a model for how to do reconciliation, Christian or otherwise.  We can see it in the smiles of laughing, playing children.  We can see it in the collaboration of teams that work together for healthy competition.  We can see it in the innocence and joy of our beloved young people, whom I hope will craft a world far removed from the divisive–and divided–world in which we find ourselves.