By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
Though racial strife has been part of Birmingham’s past, racial reconciliation can be part of its future if pastors are willing to build relationships and partnerships across racial lines.
That was the vision shared by participants in “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” a panel discussion on racial reconciliation held June 10 as part of the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Pastors Conference.
Moderated by Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, and the first African-American president of the SBC, the panel featured seven speakers, five from Alabama.
Buddy Gray, pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church, Hoover, and Mike McClure Jr., pastor of Rock City Church, Tuscaloosa, began with the story of how God used their friendship to help the community after Thanksgiving night gunfire at the Riverchase Galleria mall ended with the police shooting of a young African-American man.
As protests disrupted holiday shopping and sent workers home without pay, Gray and McClure brought 130 pastors together to create Pastors for People.
Churches raised $30,000 to help local families and in mid-December 250 families received groceries and toys for Christmas. Seventy employees received financial help.
‘Just love each other’
McClure said identifying the problem and how God could get glory had to precede finding solutions. Gray said McClure helped white pastors better understand what they could do to help.
“It all came down to let’s just love each other,” Gray said. “When that happened things began to change.”
The friendship between McClure and Gray made a difference.
“Once the tragedy broke out it was easy to come to Pastor Buddy because we had already established a relationship,” McClure said. “We had come to the table before there was something on the table.”
In 30 years of working in community development ministries Tracy Hipps, now executive director of Christian Service Mission in Birmingham, had learned the value of multicultural pastoral relationships.
So when he got to Birmingham he introduced Danny Wood, his pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, to Michael Wesley, pastor of Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in west Birmingham.
The two spent time together serving in missions and developed a relationship built not around money but around the gospel.
It is a relationship built in peace time, Wesley said. “No issues, just two pastors … talking about their vision and common mission.”
Wood invited Wesley to speak at a deacons’ retreat, which led to stronger connections between the two churches.
“We’re not writing checks, not jumping in on projects,” Wood said. “Our tendency is to want to do something to someone. We need to do (something) with someone.”
Wesley said he tells all pastors there is someone they can partner with to build bridges between segments of the community.
And “if it can happen in Birmingham it can happen anywhere in America,” Luter commented.
Noe Garcia, pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona, spoke about the challenges many churches face as the community around them changes.
North Phoenix Baptist, which started out 99% Anglo, Garcia said, is now one of the most diverse congregations in America. But the path was not easy.
“I realized quickly the church (body) didn’t match the community,” Garcia said. “The church was surrounded by diversity but I was the only minority in the church. I felt I had the right calling in the wrong color.”
Garcia said he realized if change was going to come, people of color and people across generations had to have a voice in leadership.
North Phoenix executive adviser John Shillington said there’s been pain in the effort, but the phrase he hears over and over in the church is the desire “to be a place to worship and serve that looks like heaven is going to look like.”
Wood said racial reconciliation is possible for every church.
“Every pastor here can take the initiative to intentionally try to build relationships (with pastors of different races) and introduce those relationships into your church,” he said.
Garcia urged pastors to listen and to “be willing to get uncomfortable for matters for Christ.”
“If we’re willing to break down the walls of hostility for gospel purposes God can do amazing things,” he said.