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United in worship: a step toward bridging the racial divide

United in worship: a step toward bridging the racial divide

CRAWFORDVILLE - Sunday began with a message of hate. But it was a message of love that triumphed at a worship service shared by two congregations, one from the predominantly white Wakulla UMC and the other from the predominantly black New Bridge Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

"This unity should and could be a model of healing for our small community but also for the state and the rest of the nation," says Rev. Derek Howard, pastor at New Bridge Hope. "We had tears in our eyes. It was a family atmosphere." 

"I have never seen anything as beautiful as this in my life."

-- Rev. Derek Howard, on combined worship in the wake of a hate message

Only hours before, Howard had pulled into his church parking lot to spend quiet time in his office preparing his Sunday sermon. Instead, he found "KKK" graffiti scrawled across the church marquee.

The Wakulla County Sheriff's Office reported similar vandalism at another black church, as well as a truck parked at Wildwood Golf Course. By Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made. The sheriff's office, state law enforcement and the FBI are investigating.

But if someone thought to divide the community through intimidation and fear with the racially-charged graffiti, Howard says the opposite happened.

When word reached Wakulla UMC about the vandalism, members quickly canceled the 11 a.m. service, piled into their cars and headed to New Bridge Hope about 5 miles away. The two churches are located in a largely rural community about 30 miles south of Tallahassee.

"I was dumbfounded that this happens in the 21st century," says Rev. Susie Horner, pastor at Wakulla UMC. "To be honest, I felt the Lord say what we needed to do was go over and support them, show we stand with them as brothers and sisters."

Horner's expectation was that the 40 or so members of her church would sit quietly as visiting worshipers at New Bridge Hope's Sunday service. Not quite. New Bridge Hope members opened their arms to Wakulla UMC.

The congregations prayed together. And their choirs joined in praise of the Lord.

"They had some good songs coming out," Howard says. "It was a joyous time." 

Susie Horner headshot"For every person who was there, it touched their hearts."

-- Rev. Susie Horner, Wakulla UMC

Days earlier, the NAACP had hosted a town hall meeting at New Bridge Hope to discuss an incident related to local Facebook comments about the refusal of a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a black teenager.

"I don't want to speculate who did (the graffiti)," says Howard, but tensions stirred from the Ferguson incident and similar ones across the country probably "played a part in it."

Once he saw the graffiti and notified the sheriff's office, there was never a question of calling off Sunday services. But, Howard says, "God did lead me in a different direction when The United Methodist Church came."

The graffiti's message of hate, he says, became a lesson of how God's love brings people together. It was as if "Jesus has already preached today," Howard told the church congregations.

"I have never seen anything as beautiful as this in my life," he says.

The service ended with the "Threefold Amen” hymn and a joining of hands.

"For every person who was there, it touched their hearts," Horner says. "They all felt that they had witnessed something incredible in coming together, two churches. They want to see this happening in our community."

Afterward, Horner says some of New Bridge Hope's members came to Wakulla UMC for communion.

Going forward, both pastors hope to see the faith-based community step forward to help the community heal.

"Maybe we need to have an ecumenical ministers’ gathering and find out what's going on with other churches," Horner says, "and ask how can we change that kind of mindset in our community. One thing I keep hearing is that there's good that came out of something so ugly."

At 6:30 p.m. today (Dec. 11), a vigil -- open to the public -- will be held at New Bridge Hope. The NAACP and the Wakulla County Christian Coalition are sponsoring the vigil. It follows a town hall meeting Wednesday (Dec. 10) at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church called to discuss racial tensions in the community and nationally.

The Sunday service was truly a gift from God, Horner says.

"It has changed my perception," she says. "It has made us really humble and we see how the churches came together this way. It has made our congregation see how blessed we are and how little it takes to effect a change."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.