(Goldsboro, N.C. – March 5, 2010) – Politics and racism may have divided two streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement over 140 years ago, but fellowship and worship is bringing the groups closer together.
Nearly 175 members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ International sang, prayed and worshiped together at the 36th annual Black Ministers Retreat in Goldsboro, N.C. from March 1-4.
The two branches of Disciples have been apart since 1868 when the annual conference of Disciples of Christ in North Carolina voted to separate from black Disciples. Some saw this step as an opportunity for both groups to worship in their own way. Others saw the vote as a racial severing of ties.
Over the ensuing years, the two groups developed separate worship styles, governance and structures. Today, the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ International – also known as the Assembly churches – are comprised of about 25,000 members in 300 churches spanning from New York to Miami, with additional churches in Africa and the Caribbean. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is made up of about 3700 churches and 600,000 members in the United States and Canada.
Those gathered in Goldsboro last week acknowledged the unfortunate moments in history that separated the groups, but called on Disciples from both streams of the movement to exemplify the Christian goals of reconciliation and unity.
"Let us be that one church that Jesus prayed for," preached Chester L. Aycock, bishop of the Goldsboro-Raleigh District Assembly and senior pastor of St. Paul Church of Christ in Disciples of Christ located in Wilson, N.C., during opening night worship. "We can do this together. Let’s hang together and let’s prepare to be those people of unity."
"The Lord knows what’s going on inside of us and he’s able to get the best out of us," reflected Alton A. Smith, general bishop of the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ International, at Tuesday evening’s church service. Like all of the speakers, Smith drew his text from the retreat theme, "Lord Make Me Over," (Jeremiah 18:1-10) that recounts Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house. "This scripture reminds us that the Lord will shape us and guide and direct us."
Numerous general ministry leaders and clergy from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were in attendance at the retreat, including General Minister and President Sharon Watkins. Last May Watkins preached at a special Pentecost Sunday service in Goldsboro held at St. Mark’s Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ where Smith is the pastor. The 2009 service was the first time a Disciples GMP had been asked to preach at an Assembly worship service, although in previous years, a general minister and president from the Disciples brought greetings. At that service, Watkins stressed the themes of unity in Christ and presenting a common witness to the world.
"I’m glad to worship again with members of the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ International," said Watkins at this year’s retreat. "Just as our theme points out in scripture, I’m thankful that God gives us second and even third chances. Sometimes when things look really, really hard, that is precisely when God is about to do a new thing."
As part of creating things anew and rebuilding ties, William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, spoke to participants at two morning sessions about the need for transformation in Disciples African-American congregations.
"What does transformation mean?" he asked the group rhetorically. "It should mean that you’re going to set a vision larger for people than what they can presently see."
Barber, the son of a noted North Carolina Disciples minister and historian, is president of the North Carolina NAACP. He pastors a church of 400 members which has 30 active ministries. As part of the retreat, Barber led participants on a tour of the Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Corporation, which grew out of his church’s work toward transformation. The CDC has built 42 single family houses, a 41-unit low-income senior citizens units, and runs youth afterschool programs, an anti drug and violence initiative, an HIV/AIDS project and is affiliated with the APEX School of Theology, an online seminary program, among other programs.
"Each of us needs to get down to doing the ministry of Jesus Christ, helping the poor, the downtrodden and the sick." said Barber. "While we should remember our history as an example of how we got to this place, our goal is not to dwell in it, but to own it, confess it and grow beyond it."
At the conclusion of retreat, the two groups pledged to hold other joint fellowship and worship opportunities.
"We intend to continue with fellowship, with dialogue and with meeting people where they are," stated General Bishop Alton Smith. "Ultimately our hope is that we will become one according to the Word of God."
"I really appreciated the opportunity to have conversations with our partners in the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ International at the retreat," said General Minister and President Watkins. "Over the years, our two streams of the Stone-Campbell movement have reached out to each other in various ways and have experienced unity of the spirit but unfortunate moments of misunderstanding. Building on the General Bishop’s initiative at the Pentecost service, I look forward to new opportunities for joining together in worship and other ways as the spirit gives us guidance."
The North Carolina Regional Assembly will be held April 16-18 in Wilmington, N.C. and will be another opportunity for Disciples and Assembly church members to gather.
Other preachers at the Black Ministers Retreat included Irie Session, senior pastor of New Life Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Dallas, Texas and Jesse Jackson, Jr. pastor of East 6th Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oklahoma City, Okla. Carolyn Ann Knight, a preacher and former seminary professor brought the daily Bible lecture. R. Wayne Calhoun, director of the Office of Black Ministries, a part of Disciples Home Missions, organized this year’s conference. The next Black Ministers Retreat will be held in March 2011 in Wichita, Kan.
By: Wanda Bryant Wills, [email protected]