Wildwood United Methodist Church sits under an oak tree in a small, picturesque town of nearly 7,000, mostly older, residents.
The church was founded well over 100 years ago, just after the Civil War, in a town populated with mostly white people and struggling with racial divides and inequities.
But on the days before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday this month, more than 120 of the town’s people—black and white, young and old, Methodists and non-denominational—gathered as one for the Wildwood Unity Movement two-day revival, held Jan. 10-11.
“Our goal is to reflect the kingdom of God,” said Wildwood UMC Senior Pastor, Rev. Michael Beck. “We bring our churches together in fellowship.”
Beck, 37, who is white, started his ministry at Wildwood eight years ago and knew immediately that his mission would be to help break down the town’s racial divisions. He is well equipped to tackle the mission. He spent his young adult life in and out of jail as he battled addiction, and he saw the shortcomings and racism in the justice system firsthand. After his recovery, he worked in the courtrooms standing with juveniles in criminal court.
The color of a young man’s skin, he said, often had a bearing on the outcome of a case.
In Wildwood, he helped gather clergy and lay leaders from about a dozen churches around town and from both sides of the “tracks” with the goal to build bridges between two culturally different communities.
Two years ago, during the height of the protests that swirled around the relationship between police and the black community, Beck helped create a march through town for unity. That effort has now evolved into a joint revival for all denominations, he said.
“We have to be the strong poets that stand in deserts with people, no matter what it costs us,” Beck said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
His congregation of just 140 regular attendees hosted the event.
Beck said that any church and anyone can help bridge racial divides. He encourages other churches to tackle race relations. He said the first step is to create an environment where relationships can happen.
“Unity happens around a common mission,” Beck said.
“It starts when you get people in the room together.” It’s through relationships that people begin to heal, he said. “You find someone who is different than you and take them to lunch.”
The Wildwood congregation committed to bringing people together about six years ago. Beck expects to hold the event again in 2019 and to continue to meet with pastors from around his community throughout the year.
--Julie Cole is a freelance writer based in Monroe, New York.
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