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Churches’ racial openness ‘practice for heaven’

By David Roach/KBC Communications
Feb 10, 2012

WOODBURN, Ky. (BP) — “Is that church down there supposed to be a black church or a white church?”

The question was intended as a complaint to pastor Tim Harris about Woodburn (Ky.) Baptist Church’s campus in nearby Franklin. But he took it as a compliment.

“I say, if you can’t tell, we’re doing something right,” Harris said. “… It’s not mostly white with a few black folks or mostly black. You can’t even tell. You just can’t even begin to say, and it’s beautiful for that.”

Feb. 12 is Racial Reconciliation Sunday in Southern Baptist life, and Woodburn’s campus in Franklin is a place where racial reconciliation is being lived out.

The vision for a multiethnic campus began several years ago when Woodburn Baptist Church, located seven miles from Franklin, became spiritually convicted of the need to engage in church planting.

The congregation had long welcomed people of all races and had held an annual joint service with nearby First Baptist Church of Woodburn, a black congregation.

Around 1980, the congregations began meeting for the yearly worship, despite some opposition on both sides. The pastors of both churches persevered, and Harris said Unity Sunday now is one of the year’s best services.

This year the two churches met at South Warren High School, where Harris preached about Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

“There’s healing to come together,” he said. “Although we’ve been a good community and good churches, there has been a brokenness in the body of Christ because we as Christian neighbors continued to exist as if we weren’t part of the same family of God.”

Catherine Walker, a member of First Baptist Church of Woodburn, Ky., and Andrew Causey, music minister at Woodburn Baptist Church, sing during the two congregations' annual Unity Sunday. The yearly service joining the traditionally Africa American and white churches was the springboard for Woodburn Baptist Church's racially diverse campus in Franklin, Ky. Photo by Mike Morse

Beyond Unity Sunday, the two churches enjoy what Harris described as “ongoing friendship” such as joint women’s ministry events.

The relationship between First Baptist and the Franklin campus reflects God’s desire for racial unity in the body of Christ, Harris said, noting, “It’s practice for heaven because we’ll be together in heaven.”

For Woodburn Baptist Church as a traditionally white church, it has been difficult to reach significant numbers of people from other races.

The new campus, launched in 2009, presented a prime opportunity to focus on diversity. The first step was to hire Eric Walker, an African American minister, as the campus pastor.

“Pastor Eric Walker was just a gift from God to us,” Harris said. “Nearly from the start, it was plain that he was the man God wanted for Franklin.”

Initially, Walker served bivocationally, working in a local factory as well. To free up his time for building relationships, Harris preached via video at the new campus for its first two years.

Recently, the church increased Walker’s salary and assigned him the preaching duties in Franklin.

Through Walker’s ministry, Sunday morning attendance in Franklin has risen to approximately 170 — mostly black and white attendees with some Hispanic and Asian worshipers as well.

In addition to seeing troubled marriages restored, cohabitating couples repent and police befriend criminals, the church has reached people who held racial prejudice, Walker said.

“I’m literally baptizing people who wouldn’t set foot where there was a black pastor,” he said. “And you have people saying that their parents were racists all their life, and now they’re members of this church. It’s amazing what God’s doing here.”

Another unique ministry of the Franklin campus, which meets in a building formerly occupied by another church, is its outreach to biracial families.

“We’ve become a draw for multiracial families who never had a church to go to,” Harris said. “They never felt completely welcome or completely comfortable in any other church. Some member of the family was always somehow different. But Franklin campus is a place where you can walk in as a multiracial family, and it will never matter.”

One such family is that of John and Michelle Coats and their two daughters. Unable to find a church where the entire family was comfortable, the Coatses let their daughters attend Vacation Bible School at the Franklin campus in 2010.

When the girls came home, they asked their parents to try the church and soon the entire family was plugged into ministries and activities. Today John is a deacon-in-training being mentored by Walker.

“When we first walked in the lobby, it was friendly and we were welcomed, greeted with open arms the moment we got there,” Coats said.

David Roach, a pastor and writer in Shelbyville, Ky., wrote this article for KBC Communications with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

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