Montgomery church offers example of racial harmonycomment (0)
February 10, 2000
By Kim Grueser
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, ... and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:14-15, NASB).
Our church, Valley Park Baptist Church, has for several years been an experiment in racial harmony. “Experiment” seems most appropriate to describe what has happened through this suburban Montgomery church for two reasons. First, there are few models of true integration among Southern Baptist churches. Second, it is too early to say for certain that Valley Park will develop into the healthy, vibrant, Kingdom contributor it has the potential to become.
Some 30-40 percent of the congregation’s 150 members each Sunday are African Americans. Further evidence of racial harmony came with the hiring of an African-American staff member in 1999, followed by a second later the same year.
Racial relations was never the intended purpose of the men and women who established Valley Park in the fastest-developing area of the city.
Inside of two years, Valley Park was the darling of Montgomery Southern Baptist churches. With a permanent worship center in place and plans in the making for a larger one, 200 young families were drawn by the kinship of building a new work and fellowship of stimulating programs.
By the late 1980s, two events set the church in a new direction. First, the exposure of a significant moral lapse by its most popular pastor to date was an impetus for many members to leave. Then, an increase in neighborhood home sales to African Americans inspired a second exodus. Valley Park’s third decade of ministry started with more questions than answers. As a result, offerings, programs and attendance declined.
Would the church sell and move to a less transitional side of the city? Would it stay and continue to reach its changing community? Would it become a fortress if it remained, neither moving nor ministering to its new neighbors? The answer came not as a conscious decision but as a unanimous vote the Sunday morning Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Brundidge presented themselves for membership. Accepting the first black family into its fold made a bolder proclamation of intent than any mission statement. Valley Park started down a new path with the affirmation of the Brundidges’ membership.
The direction toward integration was sealed one year later when Harvey was invited to become a deacon. Never before had an African American served as deacon of a predominately white Southern Baptist church in our city.
The humility and servant’s spirit of the Brundidge family are demonstrated regularly. Every Saturday, Harvey mows the church lawn. Sunday morning worshipers usually find Dorothy Brundidge greeting them with a warm smile and a bulletin as they enter the church. Success in the struggle.
I was called as the ninth pastor of Valley Park in 1997. Harvey and Dorothy were here, but few strides had been made toward embracing the community. Three years prior to my arrival the church reaffirmed its commitment to continue to minister where it began, despite a trend among its neighboring churches to sell and relocate. The mandate was clear — stay and reach the community. Fully understanding what this meant was not as clear. The church had opened its doors to the Brundidges. Now would it knock down some well-built walls dividing it from the larger community?
Evangelism-centered block parties, tutoring students at the local elementary school, reshaping the worship music program and calling a youth minister were effective parts of a strategy designed to create an atmosphere both our black and white visitors would find inviting. They did. Renewed excitement fell on the church in waves. But an opposing undertow pulled many older members away from the church: “Our church will be all black in six months;” “we’ll lose everything we’ve worked for;” “our worship styles are so different, it just won’t work.” These cries of doom became so familiar that even those who were refreshed by the waters of renewal began listening to their message. Then one day I got a call from God.
The Bible records that God speaks in many voices: a burning bush, the prophet’s lament, a mighty rushing wind. One winter day He spoke to me through the voice of a black man, the Rev. Sylvester Hardy. Sylvester called to say he was looking for a place to worship the following Sunday. He had served as a summer intern at Valley Park four years before and wondered if I would be interested in meeting to discuss and pray about returning. Providence and prayer often intersect. Just days before Sylvester’s call, I had met with two others from the church, and we prayed for a black man to join our ministry team. We knew the bridge to our community would be incomplete without a black staff member to focus on outreach. Within two months Valley Park, by unanimous vote, called Sylvester as our minister of outreach in January 1999.
Sylvester left Valley Park in December 1999, but the church had already added another African American to its staff. Carol Cheatham assumed duties as minister of music in October 1999.
Valley Park’s experiment is still a work in progress. Many of our members continue striving to build a church where white and black believers worship, serve and fellowship together; a place where love that surpasses all understanding fashions a bridge of racial harmony that honors God, proclaims Christ as Lord and lights a path for others to follow.