By Ayinde Moir Waring
Charleston is a city teeming with culture, arts and historical significance that brings millions of visitors to its streets each year. Most native Charlestonians are well aware of their city’s rich past and prosperous future. Historical facts are shared in common conversations among friends.
But there are also other facts that the “Holy City” (as Charleston is known for its many churches) is less apt to discuss or address.
New Francis Brown United Methodist Church, North Charleston, is a predominately black church nestled in the heart of one of the most historic, yet impoverished, sections of the greater Charleston area. John Wesley UMC, Charleston, is a predominately white church located in the growing and thriving West Ashley section of Charleston.
These two churches represent a deeper, prevalent sentiment in Charleston.
In Charleston, where Citadel cadets first fired on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter to start the Civil War, racial lines still run deep. Blacks and whites generally exist in their own worlds, often unknowingly (and sometimes intentionally) avoiding each other.
And in this environment, the churches are no different. Black people, by and large, attend black churches, and white people do the same.
But now New Francis Brown and John Wesley are on a mission to change this—one person at a time, one congregation at a time—in hopes of affecting the larger population of the city and country.
In the wake of the horrific mass shooting June 17, 2015, at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine innocent black churchgoers were murdered by a white assailant during a Wednesday night Bible study, many residents from both races found themselves having to truly take stock of race relations in their hometown.
What began as a discussion group at John Wesley UMC soon evolved into an idea of inviting a delegation from a predominately black church to truly begin to break down these invisible racial barriers through real dialogue and sharing.
“For me personally, I think the most surprising aspect of our efforts has been my realization that as an interracial group of God’s children, we are all of one heart, mind and soul, with the main distinction of the two church groups being simply a difference of skin color,” said Wayne Murrah, who along with his wife, Joy, participated in the discussions.
Suzanne Coffman, who along with the Murrahs attends John Wesley, felt enlightened following the four week long group discussions.
“Johanna (Carrington, member of New Francis Brown) said that African-Americans know a lot more about us than we know about you,” Coffman said. “And I realize that is probably true. Minorities are constantly surrounded with white people and culture.”
Though the conversations proved to be fruitful and clarifying for many, not everyone was sure how it would work.
“I just didn’t know what to expect,” said the Rev. Harold G. Gordon, pastor of New Francis Brown and one of the organizers in helping to get the group together. “We (African Americans) live with certain (prejudices) on a daily basis. This is our life.”
Polly Clark had a similar feeling in the beginning: “I was unsure how others would speak out and truly tell it like it is.”
But in the end, true honesty and insight prevailed. Group members not only discussed their personal experiences with racism, but articles were shared regarding “white privilege,” racial misunderstandings and other topics, while several discussions also focused on current events that seemed to further exasperate the racial divide.
By the time the group had reached its final meeting, plans were already in place to expand this small collection of 16 or so people to include other churches and other members, with the same goal in mind: understanding and true unity.
Joe Brockington, the group’s leader, believes this is only the beginning.
“These discussions have planted seeds that are likely to grow in places additional to the hearts of the direct participants—in their families, friends, congregations and the community as a whole,” Brockington said. “We will be carrying forward what we have gained and sharing it with others, not just so that those others will change, but so that those others can also sow seeds of change.”
Joy Murrah agreed wholeheartedly.
“It would be fantastic to see the efforts of NFBUMC and JWUMC spread to many other churches and groups in Charleston,” she said.
And the fact is that no matter what happens, New Francis Brown and John Wesley have already taken the first step.
By Ayinde Moir Waring