Two predominantly white and black church congregations came together for joint worship on Sunday as pastors from both churches offered messages on how Christians can pave the way for racial healing in America.
About 285 congregants from Faith Baptist Church and Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Raleigh County attended the service at Faith Baptist Church's campus in Prosperity. About 40 to 50 of those in attendance were Mount Vernon members.
Worshipers were treated to "shared" worship music as praise teams from both churches came together.
Faith Baptist Pastor Chris Chesley, the Caucasian pastor who inspired the event, was the first to give a message to the two congregations. He was followed by Mount Vernon Pastor Damon Hamby, who told the crowd of his struggles with race being of half-Greek and half-black descent and explained that wasn't fully accepted by either community growing up.
"We challenged our congregations to be courageous enough to address racism when it comes up and is presented to them. We want them to speak to the truth of God's Word and Christ's love in a nonjudgmental or hostile manner but [also] not to stay silent either," Chesley told The Christian Post.
"We also challenged them to live out the message of unity. To make sure that even while we embrace a specific culture and embrace the ethnic group that we are part of, above that we pursue the unity of Christ and unity as the Body of Christ higher than those things."
Chesley explained that Christians must "elevate who we are in Christ above any other identity." The pastor added that if the church is "weak on unity, it will be weak evangelistically" in trying to fulfill the Great Commission.
"What I drove home was that we can have the message down to a science but if the world looking in on the Church sees a fractured and divided Church, then no matter what we say, no matter how right it might be, it's going to fall flat to [the unchurched population]," Chesley said. "They have enough disunity in their lives as it is. So if they see that, there's not going to be anything different that would make us attractive to them. There is not going to be anything that they see they need in us."
At the end of the service, Chesley said congregants lined the room in a circle and held hands while a prayer was given to ask God to take the momentum from the service and let it spill over to help congregants live out the message that was preached.
"Yesterday's service was momentous," Hamby told CP. "I am satisfied to know that it was a highlight. But we have to keep boots moving on the ground. Sometimes events are a token symbol."
The pastors preached about the importance of intentional integration, stating that integration won't just happen without people intentionally pursuing it in their lives and relationships.
Hamby told the crowd that Christians need by more like "fire extinguishers" rather than alarms.
"Fire alarms shout about problems but fire extinguishers solve problems," he said during the service. "The remedy for racism is twofold: it's the love of God and the truth of God. We, the people of God, must love our neighbors regardless of color. And we, the people of truth, must proactively condemn racism from our pulpits, in our Bible studies, in our youth ministries, on our jobs and at our family dinners and anywhere else that this dragnet of division rears its ugly head."
"If we ignore it or we entertain it and we indulge it, then our grandkids are going to be fighting the same Goliath that we failed to decapitate," he continued.
Hamby also criticized the fact that many disenfranchised young black men are starting to be influenced by thoughts of black supremacy.
"They have decided that black supremacy is the antidote to white supremacy," he said. "If we become racist, then we lose our ability to criticize racism."
Chesley explained that Sunday's service was actually the fifth week of a five-week sermon series he has been doing that has focused on hot button issues. In the previous weeks, Chesley covered issues such as politics and sexuality. Chesley originally had another idea for what to preach about on Sunday. However, he felt called to preach about racism and racial tensions instead.
Chesley explained that God also laid it on his heart to call Hamby, who he had met once about two years ago, and invite his congregation to worship. Hamby and Chesley believe that around the same time God put it on Chesley's heart to call Hamby, God was also putting it on Hamby's heart to reach out to Chesley.
Chesley reached out first and made the call the next day.
"When I called him, he was very much expecting that I would call because he was already thinking of calling me," Chesley said.
According to Chesley, churches across America are, by and large, not doing enough to address racial issues and promote racial integration in society.
"Racism has been revived in ways we haven't seen in decades. I think that a lot of the political rhetoric and social media, celebrities and sports personalities have maybe contributed to stoking the fire a bit on all sides," Chesley said. "As a result, that means the Church should be stepping up our game, and I would say, by and large, that we are still far too complacent. I don't think that the Church is speaking about this enough. I don't think it's doing enough either."
Chesley calls on all churches to be proactive in addressing the topic in a "Christ-like manner."
Faith Baptist, an independent Baptist church, plans to either hold or participate in another service similar to the one that was held on Sunday sometime in the future but nothing is planned at the moment, according to Chesley.
Hamby told CP that Mount Vernon Baptist, which is about 80 percent African-American, has hosted similar integrated services with two other predominantly white churches in the area this year. Mount Vernon welcomed members from the Family Worship Center in Beckley and The Midway Church of Christ in Wyoming County.