In Georgia county with history of racial violence, Christians seek unity
CUMMING, Ga. — Kelvin Teamer stood on the stage of…
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When Phallen Reed looked around the auditorium at the 2022 Agape Conference, she saw people who didn’t look like her — and several who did.
The 23-year-old bought a ticket while studying at Harding University, not knowing she’d move to Seattle after graduation and travel six hours by plane to attend the Arkansas event.
All she knew was she wanted to experience the environment that United Voice Worship created. She joined over 435 participants ranging from high schoolers to senior citizens of various ethnicities. On a recent weekend, they gathered to worship and study at the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ.
“The intentional diversity at Agape is dope,” Reed said. “And I think in trying to maintain relationships with older generations and younger generations, it’s important to see people that look like you and who don’t look like you — but you all believe in Jesus.”
Bridging the generational and racial divide was Josh Kasinger’s goal when he formed United Voice Worship, which has produced the Agape Conference since 2017.
“One of the things that was not modeled for me was the potentiality of diversity being utilized,” said Kasinger, the Pleasant Valley church’s worship and executive minister. “It was usually a White male in a certain generation.”
Kasinger grew up in a Texas church and went into ministry after graduating from Harding in 2002. He recalled attending the now-defunct Tulsa Workshop in Oklahoma with a friend while in middle school.
That experience of seeing how worship could unite people from different backgrounds inspired him.
“They represented something that you did not see very often growing up, especially for those of us in White churches,” he said. “We never saw diversity from the platform.”
Like Kasinger, Jonathan Storment, preaching minister for the Pleasant Valley church, grew up in a predominantly White church.
However, rather than seeking out diverse environments, Storment took a different approach in his adolescence.
“I grew up racist,” Storment said. “I grew up with the Confederate flag hanging on my wall, with a shirt that said, ‘You wear your X, I wear mine.’ I said all the words.”
That all changed at age 17 when the minister of his rural, 10-person Church of Christ — where the only people of color Storment knew attended worship — baptized him.
The minister had a clear message, Storment said: Racism is sin.
Not long after, a Black family moved into his neighborhood. Riding to school with friends, Storment refused to heckle his new neighbors while passing their house. This led to an altercation.
“It wasn’t my most Christian moment because we got in a fistfight,” he recalled. “I lost the friendship and the fight, but as I walked four miles to basketball practice, I knew this was a turning moment in my life. I’m a Christian more than I am an Arkansan, a farm kid, a White person, all that stuff.”
Now Kasinger and Storment work closely on promoting racial justice in unity through events like the Agape Conference.
“If it’s a Christian problem, then it has to have Christian resources like confession and repentance to be able to respond to it,” Storment said. “And that’s what I think conferences like this do. They help people humanize other people.”
The path to unity isn’t a comfortable one, according to Orpheus Heyward, minister for the Renaissance Church of Christ in Atlanta and a keynote speaker at the Agape Conference.
“It starts with some really hard emotional conversations where someone’s listening, someone’s speaking,” Heyward said.
Starting those conversations is the first challenge: Many Black churches fear rejection, he said, which can discourage congregations from bridging the gap with White churches.
“The malignancy of the civil rights era” a half-century ago remains fresh for many, Heyward said.
“But my challenge to African Americans … is, ‘We can’t sit in pain,’” he said. “Let’s be in pain but be intentional about reaching for the solution, reaching for the healing. … I think for Caucasians, unity looks like first just listening and understanding.”
Yet Heyward and other leaders find hope in young adults like Phallen Reed.
“The younger generation, they’re lightyears ahead of us in this conversation,” Heyward said. “There’s a generation coming behind us that this is not their struggle. They are really into the spirit of diversifying and not looking at the ethnic boundaries.”
In the pews at the Pleasant Valley church, young adults of varying ethnicities sat shoulder to shoulder.
“Racism is alive and well, but there are certain historical events that we did not live through,” Reed said. “So I think to us, we and the generation younger below us … care less about skin, but I think also we are more aware of the complexity and the nuances of race.”
It’s not that young people ignore their differences, Reed added, but rather that those differences can lead to deeper growth and spiritual conversation.
For Kasinger, that’s what the Agape Conference is all about.
“When we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’re going to see people,” he said. “Sometimes we get so into our habits, our rhythms. … We’re numb to realizing that God’s in the middle of that space. So why not be alive in him, and why not see others so that we’re not just looking at our own preferences?”
AUDREY JACKSON is Associated Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach her at [email protected].
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