'Mirror image' of Christ in Fla. church's racial unity

EDITOR'S NOTE: February 12 is Racial Reconciliation Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention

ORANGE PARK, Fla. (BP) -- Tami and Roger Clemmons searched more than a year for a church home after moving from Georgia to Palm Coast, Fla., in 2014. Nothing seemed to fit the couple's desire for racial diversity coupled with strong biblical preaching.

Based on recommendations from respected pastors, the white professional couple in their mid-50s visited the Orange Park campus of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church some 70 miles away.

"We really wanted a church that was diverse and that really preached God's Word. We reached out to both The Moody Church (in Chicago) and Tony Evans' church (Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas) to help us, because we couldn't find anything, and they recommended Shiloh," Tami told Baptist Press. "We looked [Shiloh] up online and listened to Pastor (H.B.) Charles. We went and that was it; we haven't stopped going since."

The interracial unity at Shiloh mirrors Christ, the Clemmonses believe.

"When you walk in the door you see Christ," Tami said. "You don't see anything else."

Shiloh, formerly a vastly African-American congregation, became more racially diverse when it merged in 2015 with the predominantly white Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park. The latter congregation had suffered after the 2010 death of its pastor and was ill-equipped to retire a $5.5 million mortgage from a construction project.

Shiloh adopted the debt as its own and embraced Ridgewood's leadership, including its senior pastor, several deacons and teachers. The Clemmonses tell the circumstances of the merger to family and friends as a testimony of racial unity.

"We've been able to share the story of how an African American church was the only church that was willing to reach out to this all-white church that wanted to not see their doors closed," Tami told BP, "and to be able to bridge those gaps. So it's like we're not this, we're not that, we're Christ Jesus, what the mirror image should be, and we feel like that's the mirror image at Shiloh."

Shiloh senior pastor H.B. Charles Jr. believes the merger gives evidence to the church and community that the Gospel is real.

"It's been a great blessing to see how the Gospel works," the nationally esteemed pastor and teacher told Baptist Press, "as right in our lives, God has been doing His work, taking two 100-plus-year-old congregations that are predominantly black and white, and making us one body in Christ.

"More than anything, seeing the Gospel do its work in our church, has been pastorally one of the primary benefits [of the merger] I would note," Charles said. "Likewise, and connected to that, is the fact that the church has been a witness to the community for the Gospel by our presence, not just by our proclamation."

As recently as Feb. 6 as he was standing in the pulpit to preach, Charles noted, he saw members and guests of different races entering the church, "a testament to the witness the congregation is having in the community, not just by what we proclaim, and I hope we proclaim the Word faithfully, but by the community life of the church."

The church maintains its original location in Jacksonville and the Ridgewood site in Orange Park, both campuses thriving. Shiloh is in the middle of a three-year $10 million capital campaign, aimed at retiring debt and keeping pace with growth. Renovations, expansions and a Spanish-speaking pastor and staff are planned. The church has already added additional staff in the areas of youth and children's ministry, Charles said. Baptisms in 2016 totaled 126.

While the Jacksonville campus remains overwhelmingly African American, diversity is seen in Orange Park where as much as 40 percent of worshippers are Anglo and a spattering of other ethnicities, with the remaining 60 percent African American. About 2,700 of Shiloh's 8,000 members attend weekend and midweek services in Jacksonville, and about 875 in Orange Park, said executive pastor Dan Beckwith. Both locations have two Sunday services.

As preaching and teaching pastor, Charles preaches Sunday sermons at both locations. Shiloh has a leadership team of 11 pastors. Beckwith, who is white, joined Shiloh's staff about five years before the merger, first as media director. He was promoted to executive pastor, a post he has held for five years, and concurrently served as pastor at Orange Park before resuming major duties in Jacksonville this year. Ronald Saunders, an African American, is the new Orange Park pastor.

Michael Clifford, Shiloh's pastor of Christian education, had pastored a struggling Ridgewood for two years before the merger. Ridgewood's Sunday attendance of 500 had dwindled to 150 after the death of pastor Noel Halbert Fletcher. The bank was calling every week to collect payments that the church struggled to make, and the treasurer was despairing weekly that the church couldn't meet its expenses. Clifford prayed for months. Attendance doubled. But income didn't justify refinancing a $5.5 million loan.

No other congregation wanted to merge with a church in so much debt. Clifford sought help from Jacksonville Baptist Association Missional Strategist Rick Wheeler. He introduced Clifford to Charles, who was looking to expand to Orange Park. Clifford describes the merger as smooth, no struggles.

Ridgewood followed Shiloh's lead in the merger, Clifford told BP, and "gave up all rights." While some of the Ridgewood members didn't catch the vision and relocated to other churches, many who left have retained relationships with Shiloh and still visit, Clifford said.

"The fact that we're reaching more (people) than ever has been a source of encouragement and excitement, because that really was the original vision of Ridgewood," Clifford said. "[Shiloh has] caught the original vision. It doesn't matter whether it's Ridgewood or Shiloh, it's for the Lord."

Beckwith also describes the merger as smooth. About 250 Shiloh members already lived in the area of Orange Park, Beckwith said, so the church started with about 500 members in January, 2015. A second service was added five months later. The church has positively impacted the community through service projects and a partnership with local schools.

"We're just in a location where there is not a large ethnically diverse church," Beckwith said, "so that's opened a lot of opportunities for us to serve, for us to minister, for us to partner in the community." While integrating racially was not an original goal of the merger, Beckwith said, the racial cooperation has been a witness to the community. "We didn't know when we started this process how big of an impact it would have."

The prevailing challenge has been a matter of worship style, but even varying styles of music and praise haven't felled the love that has grown among the diverse membership.

"Trying to find a balance in worship -- because different ethnicities have different style preferences -- has been a regular challenge that I don't think we've figured out yet," Beckwith told BP. "Pastor Charles is a strong Bible preacher, so his message applies to a broad audience.... His preaching style is one that can be appreciated by all."

Charles and Clifford were jointly awarded the 2015 Clay County Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Diversity, and host the annual Clay County Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Orange Park campus.

Clifford likens Shiloh to the first century church at Pentecost described in Acts 2.

"While you're dealing with Jewish communities, you're dealing with different nationalities. There were Arabs, there were Romans, there were Greeks ... there were Cretes," Clifford said of the early church, "but they all came together. And as the church continued to grow onto three different continents and over many different backgrounds, many different languages and many different ethnicities, they were all under one banner. And that's exciting. To be able to be in the middle of that is exciting, and then to see people that are excited about that."

To merge with a church of another ethnicity, Charles recommends building friendships and relationships first, and leaving to God the decision of whether you should merge.

"Churches coming together," Charles said, "maybe not in a merger like this, but in some small way, maybe going across the road and building relationships with churches of other races -- really points in a very practical and powerful way to the reconciling work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is redeeming for Himself a people of every nation, tribe, tongue and people."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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