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.

Church is a Collaborative Project

ballchain

By Joe LaGuardia

Christianity is a collaborative faith.

In a letter to churches in Corinth, the apostle Paul confronted several congregations that were arguing with each other.  No two churches were alike and each one served a purpose in the Body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 12:27, he wrote, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”

Fortunately for us — 2000 years removed from Paul’s situation — collaboration is still highly valued in our society.  Businesses, organizations, and individuals that value collaboration succeed.  We have sent men to the moon and rovers to Mars all because of the cooperation of thousands of individuals.

Non-profit and governmental agencies that promote teamwork are able to combat social ills that have long plagued society.  Churches that cooperate in the public sector not only fulfill part of Jesus’ Great Commission, but thrive in a marketplace in which the lines between secular and sacred often blur.

Rockdale County enjoys a great deal of collaboration on multiple levels.  The Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families, for instance, hosts a free networking lunch monthly for non-profits in the area.

I’ve attended several of these lunches, and I’ve met so many different leaders, laborers, and clergy who also cherish the value of partnering together to resolve some local issues that need tackling.

Without this network, we would have to go it alone; and, for a church as small as Trinity Baptist, going it alone means not being able to reach out as effectively as we hope.

For far too many Christians and churches, however, collaboration still brings with it a sense of fear and anxiety.  Some churches believe that they cannot collaborate with organizations that do not share their exact political or theological beliefs.  They would rather “reinvent the wheel” than partner with another organization that is already making a difference in the local community.

Such churches feel that in order to collaborate they must compromise their convictions.

This approach brings with it more issues than one might initially guess. For one, a church that refuses to collaborate assumes that it has all of the answers and knows exactly what a community needs.  This is not always the case.

Sometimes, Christians can be so brazen about their theology that it actually works against the impact their church can make in the community.  It may also exacerbate needs rather than resolve them.

In other situations, a church that assumes it has “all the answers” can sometimes fail to ask the right questions.  Where social economic justice is concerned, this can mean the difference between a church enabling dysfunction instead of empowering a community to become economically sustainable.

Failing to assess needs can lead to dependence rather than interdependence or, better, synergy that utilizes all of the creative gifts that can benefit an entire spiritual ecosystem.

Such differences of opinion within Christ’s Church is not new.  Paul’s admonishment to churches in his own era prove that divisions and squabbles will always pervade church and society.

Yet, we must be passionate about reaching out, communicating what we have to offer, and seeing ourselves not as lone rangers in a threatening prairie of dry spiritual barrenness, but part of a much larger Body of Christ working within a vibrant oasis of plenty in which God’s Spirit is already present.

May we be ever mindful of our neighbors and the partnerships we share, for we have more in common than we know.

Next week, we will continue this conversation about collaboration as it relates to racial reconciliation in our community.

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.