Birmingham Baptists see racial unity as vital to faith

Racial Reconciliation Sunday is Feb. 11.

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Kameron Pugh’s church sits right in the heart of Birmingham — and he hopes that it’s sitting right in the heart of the gospel too.

“Growing up in Sylacauga, I knew some of the story of Birmingham, this city that Martin Luther King called the most racially divided city in America,” said Pugh, pastor of Iron City Church. “It’s been literally divided by a mountain between white and black for years.”

So over the years, racial reconciliation was an issue that worked its way into his heart, not as a fad but as a passion, he said.

Heart of the gospel

Unity is at the heart of the gospel — Jesus Himself told His disciples that the way others would know they were His followers was by their love for each other, Pugh said.

But if unity is nothing more than a “gospel fad” in the church, it doesn’t last when things get tough, he said.

“It’s like adoption — adoption is also a gospel issue,” Pugh said. “But the truth is, when you get that baby home, it’s not cool anymore — it’s really hard.”

And if you aren’t on board for the long haul, things can unravel quickly, he said.

The same goes for intentionality in developing unity across ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines, Pugh said. When a church is made up of people who look alike and talk alike, “we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re united around Jesus,” he said. “But once you have a multicultural church, you have a family of people with different perspectives on life, politics and church. Are you willing to work through those things as a family? Will we be able to see that Jesus really is the one bringing us together?”

That’s what he’s hoping will happen at Iron City Church — that over time, the congregation will become a diverse family united around Christ.

“It’s not something we can manufacture, even with a diverse preaching team and a diverse music style,” both of which they have, he said. “If our people aren’t living multicultural lives throughout the week, around the dinner table day to day, it’s not going to happen.”

Peter himself struggled with filling the table with people just like him, Pugh said. In Galatians 2, Peter had stopped eating with Gentiles when the Jews were around, and Paul “openly rebuked him for being out of step with the gospel,” he said.

‘We’re growing’

So Iron City Church is trying to take that seriously. Pugh said he “wouldn’t call us a multicultural church yet but we’re growing.”

And they make mistakes but love and grace is there to cover them, he said.

“There are a lot of things we still have to learn but I’m hopeful,” Pugh said. “If embracing diversity is a fad it will fade away, but if it’s a gospel-motivated desire we’ll see the fruit we want to see in our church and in our city because the gospel demands it.”

Sammy Campbell, church planting specialist for Birmingham Baptist Association, said that in order to see that kind of fruit, Christians have to be intentional to go out of their way to meet others.

“If oneness is to be achieved, someone of one group must take the initiative to interact with the other group,” Campbell writes in his book “Unity Admits Diversity.”

Forming bonds

In the case of the Body of Christ, that means forming intentional bonds with Christians of other races.

In the case of outreach, it means finding a way to intentionally serve people unlike you, Campbell said. That may mean finding a way to reach out to the impoverished, or it may mean reaching out to people after a crisis or a natural disaster with needed services.

For the church, it also could be providing space for a community center that would bring people together who don’t yet know Christ so that they can find relationships and experience the gospel.

Whatever the method, intentionality is the key, he said.

In John 4, Jesus traveled through Samaria so He could have an intentional encounter with the woman at the well. It was an encounter that changed her life, Campbell said.

Those kinds of encounters can still happen today, he said.

Intentional contact with people unlike us dispels our preconceived perceptions, Campbell said. And when we serve, it creates a neutral ground to build lasting friendships and “creates new patterns of unity that inspire oneness.”

When it comes down to it, “until we experience life with others, we will never gain the value of their life enhancing our own,” Campbell said.

That’s what Pugh said his church is hoping for — to humbly make friends and experience life with others.

“We want to come as a church into downtown with a humble posture,” he said. “We know it’s going to take a lot of hard work to see unity happen. But Dr. King said once that if justice could come to Birmingham and the church here could be a light, we might get somewhere. That’s a challenge that we should hear and hold onto.”


IMPACT coming to Montgomery

Interested in learning more about building relationships and ministries across cultural lines? The IMPACT Conference, set for April 20–21, aims to empower ministry leaders to do just that.

The purpose of IMPACT — which stands for “intentionally moving people across cultures together” — is to equip leaders “in the Christ-centered practices of sharing our faith among different racial and cultural people groups,” said Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

“We will do some training for church and community ministries,” he said, noting that those community ministries encompass everything from food banks to job-skill training. “The goal is that we develop discipleship programs alongside the community ministry.”

Session topics

The theme of the event is “celebrating our faith amidst our diversity” and will begin with a solemn assembly and directed prayer time to reflect on your relationship with Christ and relationships with others. Session topics will include modeling community, reconciling relationships, investing in people, displaying unity and having intentional interaction.

“We want to set some of the patterns that are healthy patterns for churches and associations,” Barnhart said.

The IMPACT Conference will be held at NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville. (TAB)

For more information about the IMPACT Conference, call Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, at 334-613-2220.


Look at your church through eyes of others, Gadsden pastor recommends

No matter your background, ethnicity or color of your skin, you belong here.”

That’s the first line you see when you google Cornerstone Church in downtown Gadsden, and Pastor Daniel Woodcock said they mean it — it’s part of the fabric of who they are.

‘Reaching unchurched people’

“Our whole mindset is reaching unchurched people and that transcends cultures, races and backgrounds,” he said. “We wanted to look like the people in our community — eclectic and diverse — and in doing that, we have reached white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian.”

Woodcock himself is Korean American, which “kind of gets people’s guard down,” he said.

He said they try to keep all cultures in mind as they plan church services and try to look at it through the eyes of someone who has never attended church before.

“I think what we’ve seen is a safe place develop for people to attend,” he said.

Woodcock said he’s “never met a church that said it’s only for white people or only for black people,” but that doesn’t mean people of other races feel comfortable coming there, he said.

If a church is trying to reach different ethnicities, it’s vital to think about your church through their eyes — would they feel comfortable coming?

Appealing to different cultures

“We try to think about how we can lower their guard to allow the Holy Spirit to work on them,” he said.

They think about what they can do to make families feel safe about bringing their children. They try to plan upbeat worship that appeals to different cultures.

“What we have ended up with is a crazy dichotomy of people but when you’re in the service you don’t see that,” Woodcock said. “We’re all just people trying to grow in our faith.”