Before the pandemic, the joint events held by the two First Baptist churches in Macon, Georgia — one predominately white and one predominately Black — offered up a vision of America’s potential: Easter celebrations where Black and white children ran through a park together, hunting for eggs. Worship services where the white congregation walked around the corner to the Black church, joining its members in the pews. A fellowship dinner just before Thanksgiving, where everyone gathered around the tables, the white Americans listening to their Black peers’ remembrances of racial injustice.
These were the tender steps that the two congregations were taking towards each other prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they attempted to overcome the two churches’ long and fraught history.
First Baptist Church of Christ was founded in 1826 by white slave owners. Church members brought their slaves along with them on Sundays, forcing them to sit separately, in the back. In recent years, historical evidence has emerged that the original sanctuary, built prior to the Civil War, was financed by the sale of slaves — slaves who had probably been attending the church.
By 1845, the number of Black slaves attending First Baptist Church of Christ outstripped the number of white congregants. So white church leaders bought an adjacent property to build a separate church for the Black congregation, which they continued to oversee until 1865. The two houses of worship have been around the corner from one another ever since, their members at once steps away from each other but worlds apart — like so much of America.
After meeting at a lunch in 2014, the pastors of the two First Baptists decided it was high time for the congregations to address the racial divide.
In 2015, the Revs. James Goolsby and Scott Dickison and other leaders signed a covenant. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Us!” it begins, before calling on the churches to be “a witness to the body of Christ through our developing relationship and through recognizing our shared history” and “worship, fellowship, and serve our community together.” The two congregations held the first of many joint events that spring.
But since the pandemic began, the churches have been separated once again.
Both pastors say, however, that distance has not stalled their journey. They’ve found ways to continue doing the tough work of reconciliation during a year that pushed racial injustice to the fore.
‘We’re still in this’
In Georgia, COVID-19 hit just as word was spreading about the February 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery — a 25-year-old Black man who was gunned down by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia, while he was out for a run on a Sunday afternoon. Then came the state of Georgia’s first shelter-in-place order. And then there was the death of George Floyd, who died while being restrained by police in Minneapolis.
The Rev. Dickison felt it was critical to talk to his mostly white congregation about the killings of Arbery and Floyd and other Black Americans — and to reach out to the members of First Baptist Church, as well. But he struggled with the question of how to do so virtually.
“I was still figuring out the virtual sermon medium,” he said, adding, “That’s not how you want to talk about really delicate, tender subjects — just flinging it out on Facebook live.”
So, as some members of the congregation donned masks and took to the streets to join Black Lives Matter protests, the Rev. Dickison and church leadership wrote a carefully worded letter of solidarity to the congregation of First Baptist Church. The process of writing the letter — which went through multiple drafts — was eye-opening for some members of the church council, who weren’t familiar with terms like systemic racism.
Though the Revs. Dickison and Goolsby have kept in close touch throughout the pandemic, the letter was intended as an affirmation of First Baptist Church of Christ’s commitment to their neighbors. “It was a small thing,” said the Rev. Dickinson, “but in a time that we’re all disconnected, it was a sign that we’re still in this.”
Over the past year, other churches have reached out to the two pastors, asking them to share their story — in part because it was included in Robert P. Jones’s book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” which was published in 2020.
“We were on a Zoom meeting with some ministries last night in Oklahoma,” said the Rev. Goolsby. “We’re still being asked to share that story of where we are and where we’ve been and where we hope to go.”
A foundation for future relationships
The Rev. Dickison says there’s been silver lining to the pandemic: Being alone allowed his congregants to do the inner work they needed to do in order to reach out to Black Americans from a place of knowledge, sensitivity and understanding.
“With our normal rhythms being disrupted, with people being home more and reading more … more people engaged in a deeper way than they had before,” the Rev. Dickison said, wondering aloud if not being in the sanctuary together has actually facilitated more honest discussions about racial justice. Maybe there’s something about tracking these difficult topics from the comfort of one’s home, in familiar surroundings, and being at a remove from one another, he mused.
“Church can be anesthetizing,” said the Rev. Dickison.
Despite the fact that the two congregations haven’t met in person for over a year now, the feeling the Rev. Goolsby keeps coming back to, he says, is “hopeful.”
He notes that there have been unsuccessful attempts to get the two First Baptists together in the past. But he and the Rev. Dickison clicked, something Rev. Goolsby initially found surprising because “there’s such an age difference.”
“As we begin to develop our relationship, we began to develop the churches’ relationship,” the Rev. Goolsby said, adding that that was the reason the first joint event was an Easter egg hunt and not a pulpit swap. The goal wasn’t for the Rev. Goolsby and the Rev. Dickison to preach to one another’s congregations; it was to knit the congregants together.
Now, the Rev. Goolsby — who says with a laugh “I don’t plan on pastoring forever” — wants to make the relationship with the other First Baptists so integral to his congregation that “when new leadership comes it will be the foundation of the church.”