By Jessica Brodie
ABBEVILLE—Two churches, one a black nondenominational and the other a white United Methodist, have partnered with a goal to unify their community and stop division and an undercurrent of hate.
For some time, Grace UMC pastor the Rev. Jason Wilson and The Life Center pastor the Rev. Josh Chiles have been friends. Wilson’s wife went to high school with Chiles, and the two pastors would frequently get together at the gym and elsewhere to chat about ministry struggles and life in general.
“Abbeville is considered to be the seat of the confederacy, and the racial tensions are kind of swept under the rug, but you can feel the tension, the ‘slave mindset,’ as I like to call it,” Chiles said.
One day in 2018, Wilson said, as the two were working out at the gym and talking about the racial divisions of both the town and the nation as a whole, an idea struck. They could gather the two churches together for a united worship service.
“We decided let’s pick a Sunday and do it, and whatever happens, happens,” Wilson said.
They gathered on All Saints Sunday 2018 and decided to hold a joint service, including candles lit for members from both churches who’d passed away and music from a merged worship team that included members of Grace and The Life Center. Wilson and Chiles led worship together, on bar stools set beside each other in the sanctuary.
And God moved in their midst.
“Something unique happened that day that can’t be explained other than the Holy Spirit, like we fed off each other’s energy during the entire service,” Wilson said.
“We went in not sure how each congregation would receive it, but before the benediction, members from the church he served and I served were asking, ‘When are we going to do this again?’”
Since then, the two churches have met at least once a quarter. Chiles said COVID has made gathering this year more complicated, but they still managed to come together in “parking lot services” and maintain their ties of unity.
It’s not just worship; the two churches have partnered for vacation Bible school, a fall festival, a shared Thanksgiving meal in 2019, and this month they plan to hold a joint Advent service. Men from each church meet for breakfast and fellowship, and the women gather, also.
Their next goal is engaging in mission work together, and they are actively planning a Salkehatchie-style home repair service project.
“In a town and nation that’s completely racially divided, this is what we need to do,” Wilson said. “We’re getting a glimpse of God’s kingdom when you see races coming together, worshipping and being God’s church together.”
And it’s not just racial division. Wilson and Chiles are passionate about dividing denominational barriers, too.
“When we get to heaven it’s not going to be racially divided or denominationally divided,” Chiles said.
Chiles grew up in the area, and his parents planted the church he now pastors. In their time, his mom and dad often tried to bring black and white churches together, and they got a lot of pushback. When the churches did gather, it was the black churches going to the white churches.
What has been unique about now is that it’s not just The Life going to Grace; Grace is also going to The Life.
At that first service, Chiles said, “We were all in one accord. I’ve never seem so many older white people and older black people crying after the service, saying, ‘This is what I’ve been praying for, been praying for this over 70 years, for over 50 years.’ And it was not me, not pastor Jason. It was indeed a God move.”
In a world increasingly divisive, Wilson and Chiles said, they want to emphasize unity.
“Folks are waiting on the church to show the way,” Wilson said. “If the church doesn’t show the way, who’s going to show it?”
The Rev. Steve A. Patterson Jr., Anderson District superintendent for the South Carolina Conference of the UMC, said their partnership is a “good happening that needs to be celebrated.”
“It’s about how we can be better as a community. We don’t just want to be effective inside the church walls but outside the walls, as well.”