In the midst of racial tensions in Charlotte, an African-American church in Greensboro, North Carolina, is transitioning to become the newest campus of The Refuge, a predominantly white multi-campus church aiming to have more multicultural diversity in its pews.
It was announced last Sunday that the predominantly black House of Refuge in Greensboro will become the fourth campus of The Refuge, a 2,200-member non-denominational church with campuses already established in Kannapolis, Salisbury and Brazil.
While the merger won't be complete until Nov. 6, when the House of Refuge officially becomes The Refuge of Greensboro, the announcement of the merger came just two days before riots broke out in the streets of Charlotte last week after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
In an interview with The Christian Post on Monday, Refuge lead pastor Jay Stewart explained that the decision to merge the church had been made months ago. However, the fact that the planned date to announce the merger came just two days before violence broke out in Charlotte might carry some divine significance, Stewart asserted.
"The Lord knew and I don't think it is coincidental," Stewart said.
"I think it is a great opportunity for that message to not only be spoken but to be demonstrated. People don't want to hear someone talk about unity, they want to see it in action," Stewart continued. "I think this is a great chance for people to see unity in action. Unity is the prerequisite for revival. So, if we are going to see a spiritual awakening, and I do believe there is another great awakening coming, there has to be unity first."
The House of Refuge, which is a 150 to 200-member church pastored by Derrick Hawkins, was in the midst of leadership change when Hawkins decided to reach out to Stewart for guidance about two years ago after seeing a billboard advertising The Refuge of Salisbury.
After meeting with Hawkins several times to provide guidance and mentoring and even meeting with and getting to know the House of Refuge's founding pastors, Stewart asked Hawkins and the founding pastors during a meeting last November if they ever considered becoming an extension of The Refuge.
"They just all started laughing and said, 'We talk about it all the time.' I said, 'Well, that is interesting. Maybe that is something we need to begin to explore together,'" Stewart recalled. "So, we did. I brought them in to meet our board of directors. They were ready right then."
But with Hawkins set to be installed as the House of Refuge's new pastor in June, Stewart figured it would be better if all this change wasn't sprung on the congregants so fast. The group decided that it would be best to wait until late fall to have the church officially become the newest campus of The Refuge.
Last Sunday, when the congregations in Greensboro, Kannapolis and Salisbury were told of the merger, they were presented a video showing Stewart, Hawkins and the founding members of the House of Refuge discussing the positives that will come from the merger.
Both Stewart and Hawkins said the congregations greeted the news with cheers and excitement.
Although it is a bit unusual to see an African-American church come under the umbrella of a predominantly white multi-site church, Stewart and Hawkins told CP that The Refuge really has its eyes set on becoming more multicultural and is currently making strides in that area.
While the Salisbury campus is predominantly Caucasian, Stewart explained the campus in Kannapolis is comprised of about 70 percent Caucasians and 30 percent people from other ethnicities.
"The most segregated hour in America is 12 o'clock on Sundays. We just want to break the barrier for what we feel like God is doing in our hearts," Hawkins told CP. "When I was connecting with Pastor Jay and we just started thinking about what God was doing, man, I felt like this was a picture of Heaven coming together and worshiping together. I don't feel like it should be about race. It should be just about the kingdom of God and lifting up the name of Jesus and just walking in the faith together."
Stewart said that many congregants in Kannapolis and Salisbury plan to travel up to Greensboro for the The Refuge of Greensboro's first service.
As part of the merger, the congregants of all three campuses will be presented with opportunities to intermingle with each other at The Refuge's upcoming revival, which will be held from Jan. 1 through Jan. 4. Additionally, the churches will look for missionary opportunities in which they can come together to help the communities in Charlotte, Greensboro and other areas throughout the state.
Additionally, Hawkins, Stewart and Billy Rollins, the pastor at The Refuge of Salisbury, will trade pulpits a few times each year.
"If we are ever going to be the Church of the future for what God is doing in America, we have to be the Church of the now and be doing things now," Hawkins said. "I think in the midst of the racial tension, we have to be the vehicle, we have to be that voice and not just say it but show it in action that we can actually come together and be a unit."
Hawkins and Stewart are hopeful that this merger can be a model to show other churches around the nation how to come together multiculturally.
"I definitely believe that it could be a model. I will tell you this: we have had hard conversations. Race is an issue in America. I definitely don't want to say that it is not, because it is," Hawkins stressed. "But if we are Christians and we believe that God is the God who authored all creation in the universe, then we believe that the Church should be the vehicle that the world looks to when change happens. It needs to happen in the Church first. We want it to be a model of what can happen in America, that churches can come together."