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As two Flint, Mich., churches merge, members participate in a sand-blending ceremony, featuring different colors of sand representing each congregation.
Culture
Photo provided by Michelle Franklin

White, Black churches merge in Michigan

The COVID-19 pandemic played a leading role in the circumstances that led two congregations to become one.

A beautiful day.

That’s how leaders of the “Bristol Road Church of Christ — A Family of Faith” in Flint, Mich., describe a recent Lord’s Day.

That Sunday, the Bristol Road and Family of Faith congregations unified and began worshiping as one.

“It was inspirational,” member Shirley Johnson said.

The worship service included a sand-blending ceremony, in which different colors of sand representing each congregation were poured together into a vase to symbolize the two faith groups becoming one, pulpit minister Rigel Dawson said.

“We’re all one at the Lord’s table. I hope this can be a catalyst for more conversations because this is powerful.”

“We’re all one at the Lord’s table,” Dawson said. “I hope this can be a catalyst for more conversations because this is powerful.”

The unification process of the two congregations in southeast Michigan did not happen quickly.

The idea first came up a few years ago in an elders’ meeting at Bristol Road, a predominately White congregation. Shepherd Dean Oliver first mentioned the possibility of merging with Family of Faith, a predominantly Black congregation.

“We thought it was a fabulous idea,” Bristol Road shepherd Kevin Berry said.

But both congregations were concerned about the 250-member Bristol Road congregation absorbing the smaller Family of Faith congregation of 100 members. Both leaderships wanted it to be truly a unification instead of one group disappearing into the other one.

Shirley Johnson

Shirley Johnson, member of the newly merged Bristol Road congregation.

Johnson had reservations of her own. Family of Faith was still getting its bearings as a new church. More importantly to Johnson, Family of Faith met at a school, and the congregation had put its resources into serving the community instead of into a building. Johnson thought Bristol Road’s building would detract from Family of Faith’s mission.

“When you go to brick and mortar, a lot of your funds go into upkeep,” Johnson said.

So the two churches remained separate, although the idea of merging was never forgotten.

“We thought if this was God’s will, we’ll figure it out,” Berry said.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Churches across the nation stopped meeting in person. Eventually, the Bristol Road shepherds decided members could begin meeting safely since they could spread out in the church’s spacious auditorium. But Family of Faith didn’t have that option. The school was closed indefinitely.

Rigel Dawson, pulpit minister for the Bristol Road congregation.

Rigel Dawson, pulpit minister for the Bristol Road congregation.

“We were not in a position where we could call the shots on when we could come back,” Johnson said.

After Bristol Road started meeting in person again, Dawson began preaching for the congregation, and, as Family of Faith members began to feel safer about in-person services, they started worshiping with Bristol Road. Both groups used this time to get to know each other.

“There was no rush, no pressure, no deadline,” Dawson said. “We wanted everybody to feel comfortable. It was definitely a Spirit-led process.”

Berry said taking time to meet and listen to each other was critical: “We realized there was no timetable here. We just let God keep working and stayed out of his way.”

Kevin Berry, an elder at the Bristol Road Church of Christ

Kevin Berry, an elder of the Bristol Road Church of Christ.

Family of Faith trustees began meeting with the Bristol Road elders about unifying. They discussed what the congregations had in common and what each of them needed.

“The main thing they had that we didn’t was a building,” Johnson said. “And they made no bones about it — they wanted our minister.”

The groups agreed on a three-month trial period at the beginning of 2021, but with the pandemic still raging, many members were not ready to come to church.

But once vaccines became available, the plan moved forward once again.

After making sure everyone in the two churches was comfortable with merging, and after a lot of prayer and a 21-day fast, the two groups of leaders ultimately decided to bring both churches together in the Bristol Road building.

They also hired Dawson as the full-time pulpit minister and Cleon Anderson, Family of Faith’s youth minister, as the youth and outreach minister.

For the two congregations to become one, the leaders needed to discuss the history of racism in churches and how to listen to each other’s potential concerns. They joined together in reading “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” by Jemar Tisby.

“I wanted us to talk through some things and be comfortable — even myself.”

“I wanted us to talk through some things and be comfortable — even myself,” Dawson said.

Berry said it was crucial to listen.

“We needed to hear their viewpoints on things they had experienced that others of us had not been exposed to,” he said.

As for Johnson, she said she cherishes her new church family.

“We are doing our Bible studies together, our ladies’ activities together, and everyone is open to ideas,” she said. “What I like most is that they respect our differences. Culturally, there are differences, whether we want to admit it or not. But ultimately, we are all trying to go to the same place — to heaven — and I don’t think it’s split there.”

Bristol Road Church of Christ, West Bristol Road, Flint, MI, USA

Filed under: Bristol Road Church of Christ COVID-19 Culture Family of Faith Features Flint Michigan Race Top Stories unity

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