Bridging the Racial Divide

12/15/2014

Rev. J. Michael Culbreth

Sunday morning continues to be a time of deep racial division across our nation. Ninety percent of all African-American Christians worship in all-black churches and 90 percent of European Christians worship in all Caucasian churches. Chris Rice, the author of “More than Equals: Racial Healing For the Sake of the Gospel,” notes that only 5 to 7.5 percent of churches in the United States are considered to be racially diverse.

Since all congregations need to be more intentional about promoting diversity and bridging the racial divide in our nation, it is important for congregations to take whatever steps possible to embrace diversity. A few months ago Speedwell UMC and Trinity UMC took the initial steps to bridge the racial divide.

Speedwell UMC, a 130-year-old predominantly African-American congregation, and Trinity UMC, a 202-year-old predominantly Caucasian congregation, began meeting as a Covenant Group to address racial divisions. A small group from Speedwell joined a small group from Trinity monthly for fellowship and dialogue. The groups took turns hosting the fellowship meeting over a period of six months.

At each meeting there was open and honest dialogue about racial diversity issues. We discussed current events relating to racial divisions. For example, when former South African President Nelson Mandela died, we talked about Mandela and how his life impacted the world. We discussed the Trayvon Martin case and we talked about ways to promote diversity within The United Methodist Church. We did not debate. We simply listened to each other and attempted to learn from each other.

After meeting for six months we decided to culminate our time together by participating in a pulpit/choir swap. On World Communion Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, Rev. Enoch Hendry and the Trinity UMC Choir led worship at Speedwell UMC while the Speedwell UMC Chancel Choir and I led worship at Trinity UMC.

Rev. Hendry shared these comments about the fellowship and the pulpit/choir swap:

“The covenant group was in many ways uniquely ‘Methodist.’ Trinity Church has shared in many ecumenical and interfaith initiatives over the last 30 years, but this coming together of two United Methodist congregations to meet, pray, think and eat together has been a gift to our community ... a ‘pearl of great price!’

My visit to Speedwell (and the opportunity to preach) reminded me of the fact that the things in our tradition which call us together, indeed which hold us together, trump our differences every time! Our liturgy, our shared commitment to the lectionary, our hymnbook and the holy time shared at the altar during Communion all served to remind us of the connection.

In the midst of an increasing racial divide in our community and across the nation, a member of my congregation asked, “what can WE do?’ A simple question, implying that we ought to be doing SOMETHING, led to a conversation between Rev. Culbreth and me about how to bring our churches together.

Michael and I had already become friends through our work together in the District (especially in our shared appreciation of the work of the Coastal District Wesley Foundation) and when the opportunity arose, we decided to work to bring our two communities together.

Our shared faith, our shared humanity, and our shared vision for racial, ethnic, and socio-economic harmony along with our mutual commitment to community outreach made for a good match between Trinity UMC and Speedwell UMC.

The intimacy of table fellowship provided a space for hospitality ... the free flow of conversation over good food gave us the chance to get to know each other without an agenda and helped to set the stage of a mutuality of purpose and honest and open discussion.”

Consequently, the sharing between Speedwell and Trinity did not end after the worship and fellowship. This month the UMW from both congregations will meet for fellowship. Speedwell’s Chancel Choir will participate in Trinity’s Christmas Music Celebration. Additionally, both Speedwell and Trinity will join forces in feeding the homeless and the mentally challenged in our respective communities on Christmas morning.

It is our hope that through these simple actions we will help promote racial interaction and help bridge the racial divide that exists in Savannah. The challenge before each of us as Christians is to help build bridges that unite rather than build fences that divide.

Consider this story that will help us all become bridge builders:

Once upon a time two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch.

Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and grew into a major difference and finally exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with? Could I help you?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us.

Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – an 8-foot fence – so I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all.

It was a bridge – a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work with handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.

“You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder.

“No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”
- Author unknown

Rev. Culbreth is senior pastor of Speedwell United Methodist Church in Savannah. Contact him at pastorjmc89@gmail.com.