By Glen Elliott
Evangelical leaders have been very intentional about creating unity among the faith community to make a spiritual, social, and economic difference in our city, Tucson, Arizona. Our combined prayer is the one Jesus asked us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, in Tucson as it is in Heaven.”
Even after seeing huge progress among the white and a few of the Hispanic churches, we realized the racial divide still exists. So about three years ago, a group of white and black pastors decided to meet. One of the black pastors agreed to host the meeting and named the group Pastors’ Partnership. At first, there wasn’t much of a partnership. It was a dream.
One of the black pastors later admitted that when he was first invited, he didn’t want to attend and have a bunch of white pastors pretend they care, but do nothing, while failing to accept and understand the challenges of black Americans. We agreed we would not consider any mutual projects until we got to know each other, learn to ask the hard questions, and build authentic trust. After a few meetings, it was clear God’s Spirit was present and working among us.
So we began meeting once a month to have the difficult conversations. We talked about politics and asked questions that needed to be asked, questions like: “Why are black church members predominantly Democrats and white Evangelicals predominately Republican?” and “How do we align our faith with these political parties?”
The discussions were honest, raw, and respectful. We all developed a much deeper appreciation for the concerns and values we hold. What surprised us was that in the end, while noting the flaws of the political parties, we found ourselves agreeing about the issues that really mattered, issues like being pro-life, the definition of marriage, social justice, concern for the poor, and so much more.
We also had deep discussions over gun control, immigration, and current events like the Trayvon Martin shooting. We went together to see movies like 42 (the story of Jackie Robinson) and Selma. (Read the sidebar, “Movie Nights.”) And in the end, we found our faith in Jesus, trust in the Bible, and love for the church were much stronger than any racial, social, or economic differences we have.
We had a passionate discussion right after the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. We had been together long enough to become friends, and we had learned we could trust each other.
So the conversation centered on what we could do to bring the gospel and racial reconciliation to our city. We worked to find a way as black and white pastors to help prevent violence from happening in our city.
United and Proactive
We wanted to be united and proactive, rather than reactive, so we sent a letter to the chief of police asking for a meeting. We met with two of his key commanders. We listened to their concerns and plans, and we suggested some additions to their training of police officers. And in the end, we offered our assistance should racial tensions erupt in our city.
Then came the June 2015 shootings of the nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof, who wanted to start a race war. It was a somber experience to debrief together and share the powerful stories of families who had lost loved ones forgiving the shooter.
Tears were shed, but our major concern was this: How do we declare to our city that the love of Jesus is greater than hate and racism? To that end, we quickly arranged our first public meeting, calling it “Love Conquers Hate.” We had short messages from Hispanic, black, and white pastors. We experienced interracial worship while remembering the nine people who were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was a powerful night of racial reconciliation.
Over the last several years, we have grown to trust and enjoy each other. We were sad that our churches do not get to experience what we, their ministers, experience. So we decided our next move was to work at helping the people of our churches get to know each other and build unity that would help us truly be the one body Jesus prayed for in John 17.
So a black church agreed to try an experiment with our church; we all came together to watch the movie Selma. Pastor Elwood McDowell of the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church introduced the movie, and after we watched it and ate dinner, we had a robust discussion around tables. It worked so well that we are expanding the movie events to include more churches and different films.
Our unity is based on the absolute love of the gospel and the teaching of Jesus. We love and trust the Bible as our authority for all of life. We believe the church is the hope of the world, and we believe God designed the church to be his instrument in breaking down the walls and injustice of racism.
This group is not just about whites understanding blacks and vice versa, though that needed to happen. This is not a group of whites helping blacks. We are a group that believes the issues that affect blacks also affect our whole community. We are leaders of God’s church intent on making a difference for the welfare of all.
We know we are the answer to the question of who will lead racial reconciliation in Tucson. Who will lead racial reconciliation in your city?
Glen Elliott serves as lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church, Tucson, Arizona.