The World Will Believe When…

From Jesus, John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. … Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

AP Story

MACON, Ga. (AP) — There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon — one black and one white. They sit almost back-to-back, separated by a small park, in a hilltop historic district overlooking downtown.

“We’re literally around the corner from each other,” said the Rev. Scott Dickison, pastor of the white church.

About 170 years ago, they were one congregation, albeit a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race.

Ever since — through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, desegregation and beyond — the division endured, becoming so deeply rooted it hardly drew notice. Jarred Moore, whose family has belonged to the black church for three generations, said he didn’t know the details of the history until recently.

“I thought, ‘First Baptist, First Baptist?’ There are two First Baptists right down the street from each other and I always wondered about it, ” said Moore, a public school teacher.

Then, two years ago, Dickison and the pastor of the black church, the Rev. James Goolsby, met over lunch and an idea took shape: They’d try to find a way the congregations, neighbors for so long, could become friends. They’d try to bridge the stubborn divide of race.

They are taking up this work against a painful and tumultuous backdrop: the massacre last year at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina; the much-publicized deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the sniper killing of white Dallas police officers. These events, and the tensions they have raised, have become part of the tentative new discussions among congregants at the two First Baptists.

Next month, the pastors will take their most ambitious step yet, leading joint discussions with church members on racism in the history of the U.S., and also in the history of their congregations.

“This is not a conversation of blame, but of acceptance and moving forward,” said Goolsby, sitting in the quiet sanctuary of his church on a Monday morning. “What will govern how quickly we move is when there’s a certain level of understanding of the past.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.