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Churches, split on race lines, work to heal divide

Rachel Zoll
Associated Press

Macon, Ga. — There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon — one black and one white. They sit almost back-to-back, separated by a small park, in a hilltop historic district overlooking downtown.

About 170 years ago, they were one congregation, albeit a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race.

Ever since — through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, desegregation and beyond — the division endured, becoming so deeply rooted it hardly drew notice.

Then, two years ago, the Rev. Scott Dickison, pastor of the white church, and the Rev. James Goolsby, pastor of the black church, met over lunch and an idea took shape: They’d try to find a way the congregations, neighbors for so long, could become friends. They’d try to bridge the stubborn divide of race.

They are taking up this work against a tumultuous backdrop, including the much-publicized deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Next month, they will lead joint discussions with church members on racism in the history of the U.S., and also in the history of their congregations.

“This is not a conversation of blame, but of acceptance and moving forward,” Goolsby said.

Like many American institutions, houses of worship have largely been separated by race, to the point that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called Sunday mornings “one of the most segregated hours.” Recently, several denominations, from the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, have tried to look critically at their past actions going back centuries.

In the early 1800s, in Baptist churches of the South, whites and blacks often worshipped together, but blacks were restricted to galleries or the back of the sanctuary. Eventually, black populations started growing faster in many communities. Whites, made uneasy by the imbalance, responded by splitting up the congregations.

This was apparently the case for First Baptist in Macon, which built a separate church for blacks in 1845, then finalized the separation two decades later soon after the Civil War ended.

Goolsby and Dickison said their respective churches were enthusiastic about plans to work together, under the auspices of the New Baptist Covenant, an organization formed by former President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists.

Yet excitement mixed with apprehension, since the effort would inevitably require “some challenging conversations,” Dickison said, including a re-examination of the official church history, which had been recorded in mostly benign terms, with almost no recognition of racism.

“We need to go through this kind of conversion experience of confession, of repentance and of reconciliation. We need to have that when it comes to race, not just in the country but within the church,” Dickison said.

Goolsby recalled that after the massacre last year at the historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, he was outside a store, awaiting his wife, when Dickison called.

“Scott shared how he felt, how he was struggling with what he would share with his congregation,” Goolsby said. Dickson asked how he could show support.

“I said, ‘We’re already doing it,’” Goolsby said. “The mere fact he thought to call me was huge.”

The stakes were even more personal months later, when the white church invited black church members for a youth trip to Orlando.

Goolsby’s teenage son was among those invited. But Goolsby had considered Florida a danger ever since Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old, was fatally shot in Sanford by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

The pastor could not let his son go on the trip. “If you put a hoodie on him,” he said, “he looks just like Trayvon.”

The concerns of anxious black parents had been much in the news, but the white church members hadn’t had to confront the issue directly until Goolsby raised it.

After reassurances from a white chaperone, Goolsby allowed his son and the other young people to participate.

“The fact that that was so easy to share — we’ve already made progress,” Goolsby said.