After coming under heavy criticism from members of the black community for meeting with President Donald Trump to discuss prison reform and urban job creation, Pastor John Gray continued his push for change Wednesday when he gathered with several high profile megachurch pastors to see how churches can lead the healing of the nation's racial divide.
"My job is to drive the dialogue not only into the natural but the spiritual and to identify areas where the Church can be an agent of healing as opposed to a place of further division," Gray told WYFF4 at his Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina.
Joining Gray for the conversation on building bridges were: Steven Furtick, pastor of the popular Elevation Church in North Carolina; the Rev. A.R. Bernard, leader of the 40,000-member Christian Cultural Center; Pastor Levi Lusko of Fresh Life Church in Montana, and Pastor Ken Claytor of Alive Church in Gainesville, Florida.
"The church needs to be able to speak about the moral high ground without dishonoring people from different backgrounds," Gray said.
In August, Gray was criticized by some members of the black community after he and a group of about 20 black pastors met with Trump to discuss issues related to prison reform and urban job creation.
Gray defended his meeting with Trump, comparing it to Jesus' meeting with tax collector Zacchaeus.
"Sitting at a table is neither affirming, endorsing, agreeing or aligning. If so Jesus certainly couldn't have sat with Zacch[a]eus or been in the company of lepers," Gray said. "High Priests couldn't go near lepers. Jesus made clear that He came eating and drinking and was a friend to sinners, tax collectors and wine bibbers."
Critics like Christian comedian and nationally syndicated radio host Rickey Smiley didn't agree with Gray's position and argued that the Greenville preacher and the other black pastors were being used to help the president attract votes.
"You see all these black preachers that were sitting around Donald Trump two weeks ago, same thing. What's the difference between that and remember now, George W. Bush. Only thing Donald Trump needs is 8 percent of the black vote in order to get re-elected. George Bush needed 10 and he got it because he went around and he got all those black preachers to preach abortion and gay marriage sermons which got black Christians in a[n] uproar and 10 percent of them voted for George W. Bush. That pushed him over the top to become re-elected against John Kerry in 2004," Smiley argued.
"God has used you to break barriers," Furtick said, noting that Gray's bravery in working in places where there isn't a lot of diversity such as Lusko's Montana church.
"I know I've been places where I'm the first black man they've hugged," Gray said.
Gray launched The Bridge as a new program that he hopes will help foster conversations about race, culture and politics with the Church at the front.
"Tonight our nation gets what I believe is the beginning of something I think will change the nation," Gray said. "It's time for the Church to have a necessary, uncomfortable conversation."
Lusko revealed that his church recently uncovered World War II era advertisements while renovating and found an ad promoting a KKK gathering at the old theater where he now leads worship services.
Having Gray speak there now is a small step forward.
"People are saying man, the time is dark. There's so much division, there's so much hatred, there's so much pain. And we just believe that we have a big part to play. We believe this is the Church's finest hour to shine," Claytor said.
Grays wife, Aventer, also insisted to WYFF4 that: "We need bridge builders. We need people who can meet in the middle. We can have disagreements but they can be amicable. Like we can have differences of opinion but we can do it in love."
The conversation between the megachurch pastors was recorded and will be released as a movie in theaters nationwide, possibly early next year, according to the Greenville News.
Tiffany Mashburn, who has been attending Relentless Church since 2010, when it was called Redemption Church before Gray became the church's new pastor in May, noted that the event's diverse audience was a reflection of what she believes Heaven will look like.
"You tend to hear a lot of time that people go to the church that preaches the Jesus that's most comfortable for you. But when you go you should be challenged," she said. "This is what Heaven would look like as opposed to a white church here and a black church there."