Congregations Take Decisive Action for Racial Justice, Reconciliation
By Carl Stagner
In the aftermath of tragic developments over several weeks across many major US cities, just about everyone has something to say. The commentary is continuous, divisive, and often destructive as politicians, pundits, and protestors weigh in on current events. But what is the church saying? And, how is the church demonstrating conviction behind mere words? Several Church of God congregations have shown they aren’t content to sit on the sidelines; from Washington to Florida, from New Mexico to Indiana, they’re boldly entering the fray with listening ears, open hearts, and decisive first-steps toward racial justice and reconciliation.
For several weeks, Pastor Mark Fast, of Centralia Community Church in Centralia, Washington, has facilitated regular online conversations that have become known as “Real Talk.” The church pre-records the conversations on Zoom and rebroadcasts them later on Facebook. The topic of race has been a recurring theme, considering the course of events taking place across the country. On June 10, for instance, Mark and his wife Lori had a conversation with a local couple—Rebecca and Michael; she is white, he is black. The conversation revealed the variety of challenges they’ve faced as a multi-racial couple. Two weeks later, Pastors Mark and Lori interviewed a ministry couple from Idaho about how Sunday morning in America continues to reveal lingering segregation among God’s people.
“Our goal in these sessions is to simply facilitate honest, open, and informative conversations on culturally relevant subjects and to challenge our audience to think and respond differently as needed,” Mark reflects. “We actually got this idea of ‘Real Talk’ from some ministry friends at Church of the Crossing in Indianapolis. They also host a weekly ‘Real Talk’ with different staff members, and Lori and I thought it sounded like a good concept to engage in our own context here in Centralia. We’ve just felt a strong leading from the Lord, especially in light of all that’s going on in our world right now, to engage our community (and wider network) on some relevant and critical issues—to be open to engaging in authentic conversations, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers, and admitting that we still have much to learn and grow in. And, to actually be willing to change our thinking and behavior if we find ourselves in the wrong.”
The opportune moment for Bayside Church in Safety Harbor, Florida, to address racial reconciliation came on Father’s Day. “Three Dads: A Conversation about Race, Justice, and Fatherhood” featured Pastor Terry Rolen, his close friend and parishioner Keith Simmons (who holds a degree in Christian counseling), and fellow Church of God pastor/licensed family therapist/psychologist Ronald Bell. Each participant sat casually on comfortable chairs on the platform during the Sunday morning gathering, promoting an atmosphere conducive to careful handling of delicate topics. The conversation was well-received, and followed-up with a wide variety of resources available on the church’s website to help the congregation take action based on what they had heard that morning.
“I feel like people’s hearts are rarely opened up—changed—by facts alone,” Terry reflects. “Hearts are usually changed through friendships. As pastor, I felt a personal responsibility to do something; to provide space for persons of color in our church to speak to the pain and frustration. We could not ignore it. White evangelical leaders have been quiet too long on the issue of inequality, injustice, and racism in our country.”
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Pastor Richard Mansfield, of New Beginnings Church of God, accepted an invitation to participate online in “An Honest Conversation About Race,” along with local African-American pastors and city police chief. As a part of the prayer initiative the church is a part of, the public discourse proved a practical action step launched from intercession.
Ken Love, Florida Church of God Ministries regional pastor and pastor of GraceRiver Church in Orlando, accepted an invitation to participate in “Racism in America: A Kingdom Perspective.” This conversation was hosted by Howard Harrison, pastor of The Gathering Place in Orlando and overseer of the Florida State Association. Ken is considering several next steps to take to bring about necessary changes among the Church of God in Florida, including more prayer, more listening, more conversation, and the intentional building of trust.
Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, captured the attention of the Church of God across the country with its early and immediate response to the racial crisis. After issuing a public statement against racism, pastors and churches near and far shared the resource in enthusiastic agreement and affirmation, including the National Association of the Church of God. Whether by “muting” their own social media posts so ethnic voices could be amplified, or by participating themselves in protests for racial justice, Park Place Church of God leaders and congregants were quick to take action.
“I don’t believe there is a more detrimental issue to Christ-centered unity and holiness than racism,” Pastor Jonathan Grubbs explains. Jonathan, who is quick to point out how grateful he is to the Park Place community as they welcomed him into their fold just before the pandemic, is also grateful to the congregation for their commitment to justice. “Anti-racism should be a natural expression of our identity and embodiment of the movement,” he explains. “To not wrestle with these tough issues negates our theology and practice as participants in God’s greater kingdom and our specific church community.”
Park Place has turned their online platform into a hub for advocacy and training. New tools and resources continue to be highlighted, not only from the pulpit, through small groups, and “Coffeehouse Worship” gatherings, but also through social media. Not content to limit their anti-racism response to words only, several chose to move beyond their comfort zones. Carma Wood Hammell, associate pastor of worship and the arts (also having served as interim executive pastor), recounts her experience:
“Pastor Kirsten Streit-Harting, Pastor Jonathan Grubbs and his family, and I, as well as several members of our congregation, attended the protest organized by Faith in Indiana in Indianapolis on Sunday, May 31, which also happened to be Pentecost Sunday. The juxtaposition of the two was especially meaningful to me: the church made alive through the Spirit engaging in a rally that asked—demanded—life be honored and made equitable for all people. I’m thankful for the privilege of walking alongside the black community of clergy on that day…. The experience was powerful and humbling.”
Learn more about how the Church of God is “changing the story,” and get involved, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/change-the-story.
*Feature (top) photo: Bayside Church “Three Dads” conversation.