In a time when national disunity is high and barriers both intentional and unintentional still divide people along racial lines, several churches in the area have started working toward racial reconciliation and First Baptist Church of Olive Branch (FBCOB) is leading the charge.
FBCOB's efforts began in 2016 when it hosted a racial reconciliation conference to bring together pastors and laypeople from the community, form connections and help participants find a prayer partner. Last year, the staff hosted a pastor's date night and invited pastors from a variety of churches in the area to have a panel discussion and start conversations and relationships, with about 70 couples in attendance. Senior Pastor Kevin Kerr also brought several denominations together for last May's National Day of Prayer service and met with about 20 other pastors for lunch at Mt. Pisgah, a traditionally African-American church. For several years, FBCOB has provided an English as a Second Language ministry. This summer, the church is hosting a Wednesday night series called Undivided, which includes video material, group discussions and interviews.
Kerr said that he's made friends across racial lines through his years here and it's his vision that this is an issue that both the capital "C" Church and little "c" church should be working on. Kerr said that he recognized the gravity of the need after attending a LifeWay training event with another pastor a couple of years ago and saw a demographic report on Olive Branch.
"Between that date two years ago and 2025, they projected that the Anglo population in Olive Branch was going to decline, the Hispanic and Asian populations were going to stay flat in terms of percentage and the African-American, which already make up 29 percent of the population, was going to grow 27 percent," Kerr said. "[Their population] is almost a third, and they're going to add almost a third. My philosophy is that the church ought to look like its community if you're going to reach your community, and we are not 100 percent Anglo in OB. Almost four out of 10 within a couple years are going to be African-American. I'm just trying to be honest with what it means to be a church in a community."
The Undivided series, which began May 29 and runs through July 24, was prompted at last year's Southern Baptist Convention, and the material comes from the North American Mission Board. J.D. Greear, a white pastor in North Carolina and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Dhati Lewis, an African-American pastor in Atlanta who also works for NAMB, are leading the video sessions.
Each interactive session will discuss racial reconciliation at different levels and will include videos and small group discussion. In addition, Kerr will be interviewing either an individual or couple each evening. He interviewed Henry Minor, an officer with the Olive Branch Police Department who goes to St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church, on May 29 and Raul and Sheryl Jones, Olive Branch residents who have helped start churches in the Memphis area and recently joined a 99.9percent white church, on June 12. Others scheduled to be interviewed include Henry and Shamekia Nickson, who are members of FBCOB, and Marquise and Tamekia Gooden of Brown Missionary Baptist Church.
Churches that FBCOB have partnered with in its efforts toward reconciliation include Halliburton Missionary Baptist Church, Brown Missionary Baptist Church, St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church, Christ the Rock Church, Mt. Pisgah and Cooper's Chapel. Several white churches have also participated and supported the efforts.
"I'm just trying to build bridges where I can, and I'm just trying to get these voices in our church so our people can hear them and hear what they think, what the black community thinks the situation is like, what advice they have for us," Kerr said. "I'm not driving a movement. Nobody else is doing it, so I thought maybe I would do some things that help us address the issue. I'm the outsider really, so they've been very gracious letting me do that."
Kerr explained that racial reconciliation is especially crucial now, as more white people move south and more African-American people move into the community.
"That's really the driving force, trying to reach our community the way it really is, not the way people think it used to be," Kerr said. "It has nothing to do with trying to force an agenda. It's just if we're going to be the church of the community, we need to really reflect the community. 20 years from now, if we don't reach the black community, they're going to be all around us. I'm just trying to think what I can do today that is going to help this church reach its community. I'm not trying to be some kind of renegade or pioneer. I'm just trying to love the church."
Racial reconciliation is also reflective of the Gospel.
"Jesus died for people of all colors and ethnicities, not just for people we're comfortable with or who are like us," Kerr said. "Since those persons do live in our community, it's imperative that if we're going to take the Gospel to our community, we also have to bridge racial, language and ethnic barriers just like they did in the first century."
Those in the first century had to wrestle with the division first between Hebraic Jews and Grecian Jews and then between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, a Gentile and one of the biggest writers of the New Testament, is evidence that Jesus tore down the dividing wall of hostility and removed racial distinctions, which is directly applicable to today's racial tension. Kerr pointed out that Jesus prays for the unity of all believers in John 17 and that believers are supposed to be unified so that the world will know who Jesus is.
"We are divided nationally, but when we get to heaven, there's not going to be division of tribes or languages or ethnicities," Kerr said. "I think the Kingdom of God, the church of Jesus Christ, is supposed to be reflective of those barriers being broken. If we cannot demonstrate it in the church, how can we expect the world to do it? And they're crying out for it to happen. They're trying to find an example, and I think the Lord means for the church to be the place where that happens. I'm trying to be honest with God's Word, the mission of the church."
Kerr said that the mission of the church should not simply be to create a "multi-colored" church but to create a multi-ethnic church in which multiple races compromise on issues less essential than the Gospel and pointed out that it is okay and even expected for Christians to be uncomfortable.
He also said that, according to J.D. Greear, racial reconciliation also means finding ways to bear the burdens of other believers and understanding what others are going through.
"We need to try to bear the burdens of brothers and sisters," Kerr said. "Not all of them are brothers and sisters in terms of faith, but as brothers and sisters in terms of humanity, we ought to try to bear the burdens."
Although efforts may not be completely successful during his lifetime, Kerr is willing to take criticism because it's what's best for the church. He noted that at some point the Christian life must move from theory and theology to practical application and that efforts will not mean anything if individuals are not willing to try to bridge the gap, understand the viewpoints of others and share their own viewpoints. As the church continues to work toward genuine racial reconciliation, Kerr said that individuals and members of the congregation can demonstrate racial reconciliation by living in the community with other races, forming relationships with them, inviting them to church to encounter God and congregational life, working with them, participating in their businesses and crossing barriers to form a community.
"We're not black Christians or white Christians," Kerr said. "We are Christians. Let that be the identifying mark, not a qualifying adjective that we put ahead of it because then that takes the emphasis."
The next session of Undivided will be held on June 26.
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.