Posted: 1/22/17 at 8:00am. Article appears in the BGAV Express.
Following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the violent backlash that occurred afterward, Chuck Harrison was troubled by the thought: How will we respond when something like this happens in our area?
Harrison, the director of missions for the Peninsula Baptist Association (PBA), began to challenge himself with other questions, like, Where is the church in this? Do we have a voice? Do we even know each other well enough to have a conversation about it?
“I realized a lot of the churches—the pastors and the people—don’t even know each other, and they don’t even speak, particularly across racial lines,” he remembered. Calling upon other ministers in the Newport News/Hampton area, he initiated a dialogue over lunch and invited pastors to get to know each other, to share ministries with each other, and to start to talk about important things like racism, poverty, and crime—things that affected their cities.
“One thing led to another, and now we have a group of 50 or more people who gather once a month,” Harrison explained. The group includes pastors, police officers, city officials, and representatives from the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. “They’re people who care about the city the way we care about our city.”
“When we started the dialogue, we had a homework assignment the first day: to make a lunch appointment with someone who doesn’t look like you,” Harrison recalled. He said that after they did that two or three times, they started coming back and telling similar stories about how they share similar problems in their different churches.
Some pastors who became friends said that their churches were going to do things together—like VBS or some event—because they both are in the same community, and they both care about the same things. For example, an African American church partnered with a white church to host a Halloween-related event, and together they served nearly 400 children at a safe event in their community.
A lot of great things have come out of the relationships that have developed from the monthly meetings. Churches have formed partnerships with the city and with the police department. Pastors are getting to know other pastors.
While the local response to this initiative has been mostly positive, the efforts have not occurred without cost. “There is always resistance to change,” Harrison commented, “especially in the church world. With our shift of focus to include racial reconciliation as one element in growing God’s Kingdom in our area, some individuals and churches have reacted negatively. This has been a very small percentage of the feedback we’ve received. Unfortunately, in a few cases, this has led churches to withdraw financial support.” He said that some have been forthcoming about their reasons for withholding giving, while others have been more vague. “The financial hit has hurt us for sure,” he stated.
Harrison went on to clarify, “Nothing worth doing is without cost. We expected some of this would take place. But the majority of our churches have been very positive about what we are doing, and the reputation of the PBA with local cities, agencies, and communities has grown exponentially through our efforts.”
Harrison emphasized that these church leaders who are working together are realistic yet optimistic about the role they play in their region. “We’re about the Kingdom,” he explained. “We’re churches. We can’t fix all the city’s problems, but we really believe that God has put us here to advance his Kingdom in this place. And we can’t do that unless the churches are working together, unless the pastors are in conversation, and unless we see this city as our mission.”
As relationships and partnerships grow, community members are learning to celebrate the beauty they are finding in their diversity, and Harrison expressed optimism about their future. “I believe God blesses in a unique way when we come together across barriers.”
This story was told at the Monday night gathering at the 2017 BGAV Annual Meeting. Watch the video that was shared that night.