People have many differences: backgrounds, gender, economic status, physical abilities, even race. It is that final difference that has sparked discussion and, in some cases, tension in communities across the country following the shooting death of an African-American teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
Several religious leaders in the Wichita, Kansas, area have embarked on an effort to move beyond race and to focus on a similarity that should weigh far more heavily than any other factor: our relationship, thanks to God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Two of Wichita’s largest churches – First United Methodist Church, a predominantly white congregation, and Saint Mark United Methodist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation – traded pastors Oct. 25 and Nov. 15 during a six-week sermon series for both congregations titled “Love. Period.”
The sermon series comes from the book by the same name written by Rudy Rasmus.
The Rev. Kent Rogers, lead pastor at First UMC, said the universal church needs a revival of love for one another, regardless of our perceived differences. The harsh reality, he said, is “we live in a world where most often we love with conditions.”
“We have invited our two historic congregations to imagine what would happen if our racially diverse congregations started putting a period after our love and became ground zero for a ‘love revolution’ in Wichita, Kansas,” Rogers said.
One way to begin that revolution was to tear down barriers that society sometimes supports surrounding race. The congregations blended together their music departments and Bible studies since the start of the sermon series.
The Rev. Junius Dotson, lead pastor of Saint Mark UMC, said the swapping of pastors for two Sundays was about “breaking down barriers that prevent us from seeing each other as real, living human beings.”
“In light of all that continues to go on in our country around race, ethnicity and the intolerance of differences, (the church) must push back and use our influence to remind and challenge all of us, especially people of faith, to ‘Love. Period,’” Dotson said.
The efforts of Rogers, Dotson and their congregations didn’t go unnoticed in the wider Wichita community. The two pastors appeared on local television news discussion shows and posts on Facebook showed the swap was no gimmick as people expressed their appreciation for bringing the congregations together, regardless of race.
While First UMC and Saint Mark UMC may be leaders in how they address such a sensitive topic, they are far from the only churches embarking on the effort to build relationships across racial lines. Faith leaders in and around Wichita are taking part in the “Moving Beyond Tolerance” community event, which was scheduled to culminate with a community meeting at 5 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Century II convention center in Wichita.
University United Methodist Church, led by the Rev. Jo Mead, sought out a partnership with Brotherhood Presbyterian Church, led by Pastor Eric Williams. After trading emails and sharing meals, the two pastors arranged for a pastor swap, with Williams preaching at University UMC on Nov. 15 and Mead scheduled to preach at Brotherhood Presbyterian on Jan. 24.
As part of the partnership, each congregation was handed out ribbons to tie to trees on their respective church properties and in the yards of members to show their support of real relationships with – and not just tolerance for – people of different races, religious beliefs and cultural differences. Instead, those differences, as well as the shared love for Christ, are being celebrated.
The two congregations are in the process of planning for a joint mission activity, as well as shared meals.
“It is when we break bread together that we enter into real relationship,” Williams said.
Dotson said the goal behind these kinds of events and partnerships is to break down barriers.
“Engaging in dialogue with the goal of truly understanding and loving the person in front of you is the first step toward authentic transformation,” Dotson said.