ALPHARETTA, Ga.— After months of planning, clergy from three United Methodist Churches in North Fulton hosted a six-hour summit Nov. 14 geared to bring racial reconciliation through the word of God and personal relationships.
The online summit, “Bridging the Gap: Racial Reconciliation through Worship and Fellowship,” was bookended by two keynotes speakers. Clergy from St. James United Methodist, Alpharetta First United Methodist and Mt. Pisgah United Methodist churches conducted a dialogue half-way through the event. Interwoven throughout were group discussions covering issues, such as police interaction and personal encounters with racism.
The first keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Crawford Loritts, senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, who classified racism as sin.
“Racism is not just a societal ill, it is not just an oops in human nature,” he said. “We have got to be anti-racism because we are anti-sin.”
Loritts said racial reconciliation should not be a hobby or a project but should be lived out and is best addressed through meaningful relationships. His challenge to the audience was to embrace a new identity and prevent the formed multi-ethnic relationships from dissipating.
Noted author and speaker Dr. Randy Ross spoke toward the end of the day and delivered a message themed on faith, hope and love.
“We have to allow all of these conversations to sink deep within our hearts to fill in the cracks in our characters, to close the gaps between us, and to begin to live together in brotherhood and love,” he said.
He challenged the audience to leave echo chambers and seek in-depth conversations.
The all-day event came about this summer with joint Bible study between the three churches. A conversation between two neighbors sparked shared study between St. James and Alpharetta First United Methodist churches. St. James later paired with Mt. Pisgah for Bible study. The groups pressed on, hoping for meaningful change despite hesitation about difficult conversations focused on race.
The Rev. Tavares Stephens from St. James UMC directed the event. He explained the difficult dialogues as wrestling with the hard stuff.
“This wall of racism and prejudice will make us think that other children of God are supposed to be rendered as our enemies when the enemy itself is sin,” he said. “The enemy itself is ignorance [and] lack of fellowship.”
The clergy dialogue grappled with the same challenges faced in group discussions.
The Rev. David Walters from Alpharetta First UMC was stirred by deaths of African Americans Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd earlier this year.
“There is a perspective that as a White person we have to learn — that we don’t have and won’t have — unless we have relationships.”
He said change was only possible through the conduit and context of relationship.
“When you get in a relationship, then Ahmaud Arbery is not someone in another city or another town, it’s somebody that you know,” he said.
The Rev. Steve Wood, senior pastor from Mt. Pisgah, also took the idea of segregated relationships to task.
“We get together and we worship together occasionally,” he said. “We do not intentionally pursue relationships, so we’ve got segregation there.”
Wood said said without sharing stories, perception is incomplete. He questioned if people are going to stay engaged and willing to expand consciousness or if they are going to walk away. He said community ties should move toward equity, justice and partnership, closing the chapter on the old normal of silence.
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Williams, senior pastor at St. James, called for initiating change at home, then spreading it from house to house.
“Until we look deep in our spirits and come to the conclusion that all men and women are made in the image of God [change will not happen].”
He said that loving, valuing and respecting your neighbor were necessary.
In all, 149 men registered for the summit. The audience, representing 19 states and Costa Rica, was 52 percent African-American and 45 percent White.