A few months later, I was fired from the church I served in Jackson. There were several reasons given. One—I had challenged the finance committee about taking part of a love offering at a concert and using it to build a fence around the church property to keep the black kids (not the word they used) from riding their bikes across the parking lot. Two—I had quoted Martin Luther King in one of my articles as the youth pastor. Three—Our youth visitation team had led five African American teenagers to Christ. The deacons and ushers made it clear. If any African Americans showed up for a service, they were to be turned away on the church steps. That church has since relocated outside of the changing community it once served. They applaud themselves for being a prospering, middle class, white church on the cutting edge of the community.
In fact, one reason I have such strong opinions on this is I have served three churches that refused to minister to the people in their community. One was the church in Jackson, Mississippi that I just mentioned. One was in Kansas City. I believe that church is barely in existence today. The third was a once vibrant church in Fort Worth. My first Sunday there as a staff member, there were 1,575 people present. Today, they’ll be lucky to have 100 in worship. They are surrounded by a community of 95% African Americans and Hispanics and still want to be the once great all white church of the 1950s.
I live in a town where Martin Luther King was once arrested. There is a Civil Rights Museum here. There is a racial divide here. It’s not pretty, but there’s hope. The pastor of the largest African American church in town is Dr. Daniel Simmons. Daniel and I have been friends for a number of years. God has allowed us to partner as pastors and churches to build bridges in this community.
I know of a church, less than ten years ago, that hosted a major evangelistic emphasis. They were able to get into the local schools and invite the students to come. After four days, over 600 professions of faith were made. Over 500 were made by African Americans. Since then, the church has no desire to reach into the black community, and they did nothing with those names. They did not pass them on to a black church that would follow up on these students. They threw their names away. They didn’t want a bunch of blacks in their church.
My question is: Why have an event if you aren’t going to embrace those you reach? Who do you think you are to trash the names of people who have responded to the gospel? If there’s ever a church that deserves the name “Ichabod,” that one does. Prejudice on this scale is as un-Christian as atheism.
Twice, Daniel and I have been recognized at a banquet honoring the memory of Martin Luther King for our work in the community. We exchange pulpits. We have joint services. We work together as often as we can. He is a dear friend and co-laborer in the ministry of the gospel.
Together, Mt. Zion and Sherwood have hosted an event with Tony Evans and TRUTH which drew an overflow crowd of nearly 3,000. Daniel preaches every year at our ReFRESH Conference at Sherwood where he is one of the most popular and powerful preachers we have. A few years ago, he preached for me on Christmas Eve and I preached for him.
Daniel and I dream of a day when churches will lead the way in tearing down walls and building bridges. It is a shame that Sunday mornings in America are the most segregated hours of the week. Sports, business, banking, politics and education are all integrated, but the church lags behind. Water and oil are more compatible than Christianity and prejudice.
If you read the history of the church, it was the church that led the way of social change. Today, we drag our feet, kicking and screaming. We’re the last ones to embrace change. If it were not for the church and believers like William Wilberforce, slavery would have continued in England for hundreds of years. Our favorite hymn is Amazing Grace, written by a converted slave trader. We sing, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” But some churches don’t. I’m wondering what Bible they are reading.
When God used the Apostle Paul to start churches, He didn’t instruct Paul to say, “Now, all the slaves in one church, slave owners in another church. Gentiles over here, Jews over there.” Somehow, it seems to me, God expects His children to figure out how to get along in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we are like Jonah. We’ll do anything to keep from crossing our cultural lines. We’ll hold onto a prejudice, no matter what the cost. God called Jonah to the city of Nineveh. God had compassion on pagans. Gentile pagans. Dreaded enemies. Jonah wanted God to destroy them. As far as Jonah was concerned, they could go to hell. They deserved it.
Our church has an African American missionary couple who serve in Brazil. Eric came out of our church. He and my wife taught college Sunday School together in the early 1990s. We’ve had the privilege of having Eric and Ramona, not only as ministry partners, but also as friends.
I have never been so broken-hearted as when Eric returned from speaking in a church in Alabama a few years ago. He was held backstage until it was time for him to speak. When he came through the door, dozens of people got up and left. Eric did all he could to preach, but his heart was broken. The worse part was the head of the women=s mission group in that church who said to him, “Young man, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but we all know there aren’t going to be any blacks in heaven.”
Why in the world would you say you are missions minded if only people who look like you are going to be in heaven? That was the most arrogant, ignorant and godless statement I believe I’ve ever heard.
Our churches need to look like the communities we serve. They need to be a blend of races, socio-economic groups and cultural differences. Why? Because the gospel is not reserved for people who are just like us. The church is not a social club. We are not an organization of the elite; we are a living organism of the redeemed.
Lord, help us to see each other through the eyes of Jesus. Help us to get over ourselves. Help us to grow out of and put aside our preconceived ideas and sit down and get to know one another. Forgive us, Lord, for being so narrow-minded. Forgive us for giving the devil this foothold in our lives and our churches. Forgive us for ever thinking we are better than anyone else. Would you allow us to see a movement of God that would bring us together for the purpose of evangelism? Would you move in our churches to such an extent that politics and agendas are all laid aside that we might seek you with all our hearts? Forgive us, Father, for making you in our image instead of seeing your image in the people we meet.
© Michael Catt, 2007
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.