ARISE: Churches Gathered in the Midst of Racial Tension
It was Sunday morning and there was a noticeable sense of angst in the sanctuary.
It had been a rough week. First there was the shooting death of Alton Brown, next the shooting death of Philando Castile, and finally the shooting of Dallas police officers working during an otherwise peaceful protest rally. I’d found myself glued to the various news programs, mining every possible detail about these tragic events. I felt a burden weighing on me and sapping my supply of hope. I prayed for my son, my husband, and relatives working in law enforcement. I had to face the fact that there are people who automatically see them as dangerous. I struggled with how to have open dialogue with my son about how, despite the fact that he has friends from a diversity of backgrounds, he would be held to a different standard and viewed differently. I was frustrated by my Facebook feed and what I perceived as indifference from many of the non-African Americans who populated my friends list.
By the time I arrived at First Baptist Church of Vienna that Sunday, I was mentally exhausted and my heart ached. The atmosphere in the sanctuary seemed to suggest that I was not alone. That morning, our pastor shared in our pain and reminded us of the words recorded in John 13:34-35 — as disciples of Jesus Christ, it is our responsibility to love one another.
Just across town, Vienna Presbyterian Church was also holding worship service. If I’m being totally transparent, it never occurred to me that members of this primarily white congregation had even noticed all that occurred over the past few days. I was so focused on my own pain and the collective pain of African Americans that I hadn’t really considered the idea that Christians of other ethnicities were hurting too. I’m not sure what the members of Vienna Presbyterian talked about that day and I don’t know the topic of the sermon they heard, but thanks to an event that had not yet taken place, I later came to appreciate that there were people from all different backgrounds who may not have known what to say or how to say it. They didn’t want to be perceived as insensitive, they didn’t want to offend, and they didn’t want to pretend to understand all of the complexities surrounding issues of race in America, but they cared.
GOD HAS A PLAN
Genesis 50:20 states: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Despite all the tragedy, even through awkwardness and discomfort, God was up to something. Our pastor, Dr. Vernon C. Walton, and the pastor of Vienna Presbyterian, Dr. Peter James, had been talking and as a result, our churches partnered to host a Prayer and Conversation event. During this program, the two pastors led a transparent and honest discussion about recent news events, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and our differing experiences. Later, attendees formed small groups for a period of discussion and to help brainstorm next steps. We ended the evening by praying together. Men and women, young and old, black and white, came to microphones to lead prayers for healing and unity.
There were over 300 people in attendance, several churches were represented, and we were able to model Christ-like love to the non-Christian members of the community who attended.
Though much of the discussion was about our differing experiences, I walked away reminded that despite our denominational, cultural, and racial differences, we are one in Christ.
We laughed, cried, sang, talked, and prayed together during this powerful night of unity. Through open conversation and prayer, we began chipping away at the walls that separate us: walls built by a society that isn’t always just and walls we’ve built around ourselves to protect from pain and disappointment.
Images for Good captured photographs from the Prayer and Conversation event that can be viewed here.
We continue to focus on communication and relationship-building. Though our churches have worked together for years, we are being more intentional about working toward reconciliation. Since our initial gathering, both pastors continue to collaborate and make future plans. Several small groups formed during the event have coordinated on their own to continue the dialogue and pray together. We’ve come together for a joint movie night where we watched a movie that addressed issues of racial reconciliation and unity in Christ. Our youth worked together as camp counselors this summer.
There are a number of joint ministry opportunities that are in the planning stages, this is only the beginning.
- Remember, in spite of our differences, we are one in Christ. – This really is the key. We are one in Christ. Remembering this helps ensure that all of our racial reconciliation efforts will be approached from a position of mutual respect.
- Collaborate – Through the years, our church has been intentional about incorporating discussions about social justice and history into our own ministry activities. However, racial reconciliation can only be achieved by collaborating with faith communities of varying backgrounds.
- Have an open mind, be honest and talk, talk, talk! – At our Prayer and Conversation event, the pastors from both churches set the stage by sharing the openness and honesty of their own conversations and by leading the program together.
- Work together in ministry and play together, too. – Several of our young people were able to begin developing friendships as a result of working together as volunteers during a weeklong summer camp. Our movie night was an enjoyable evening that allowed families from both churches to hang out and enjoy one another’s company.
- Be open to new ideas – We are not limited to formal conversations and panels. Consider informal social events, joint mission projects, and collaborative small groups as opportunities to further racial reconciliation. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.
- Celebrate diversity – Northern Virginia is a diverse community and many of our youth have close friends from many different backgrounds. We can follow their example and celebrate diversity while honoring our own heritage.
Stacey Seay serves at First Baptist Church of Vienna, Virginia as an administrative assistant and youth ministry facilitator. Her husband and two children often serve alongside her in various youth and church-wide ministry opportunities.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.