SUMMIT COUNTY, Ohio — The church is supposed to be a place meant to bring people together, but pews are often filled not only with people of the same faith, but of the same color.
The divide between races is a concern Pastor Rick McKee of Redemption Chapel in Stow and Pastor Bryndon Glass of SPAN Ministries in Tallmadge are working to alleviate by being advocates for racial reconciliation both within and outside of the church. McKee, who is white, and Glass, who is Black, have dedicated their lives and ministries to healing the divide.
“White people are broken, and Black people are broken,” McKee says. “We all have issues and we all have junk, and at the same time everyone is made in the image of God and has inherent dignity.”
“We have to humble ourselves as White churches and Black churches, look at ourselves and say how are we going to fix this,” Glass added.
For Glass and McKee, the answer came through their relationship and willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations after the 2014 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot and killed during an altercation with a White police officer.
“When things like Ferguson happened and Michael Brown, we had a relationship already in which I could ask questions,” explains McKee, who has known Glass for nearly two decades now. “I got a great, wonderful education from my brother.”
From those conversations, the CrossOver was born, a movement in which Glass brought his predominately Black church to engage in dialogue with McKee's predominately White congregation on matters of race and reconciliation.
THERE'S A COST
“Reconciliation is based on relationship,” says McKee. “Racism doesn’t hit me the same way that it hits my Black brother, but he’s family and so I care about it. I care deeply about it.”
McKee says he was willing to and did lose members over addressing systemic oppression.
“I’ve got to choose at some point … do I want to make Jesus happy or do I want to keep what might be some closet racist in our congregation happy? That wasn’t a hard choice for me.”
Glass says as a result of the CrossOver, members of his congregation are now looking to be agents of change for reconciliation. However, operating as an agent doesn’t come without a struggle.
“They have to check some of their internal anger, frustration,” says Glass. “They have to check it so that they can go and be productive in these conversations and that would not be possible if it was not for the CrossOver,”
Glass hopes change will happen one family and one heart at a time.
BUILDING MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS
Redemption Chapel congregants Derek and Rebecca Stegall are working to live out the message of the CrossOver.
“The relationship that Pastor Glass and Pastor McKee have when they get up on stage, they talk through some of these issues, they field some difficult questions … and we have difficult discussions but we build understanding through that and so it's a tremendous blessing for us just personally and obviously for our family,” says Derek.
The Stegalls are raising three children of color they adopted before giving birth to a son. After attending one of the CrossOver events, the two stepped out of their comfort zone to build a meaningful relationship with a Black couple they met through the CrossOver.
“It just takes our understanding of racial issues to a deeper, more personal level that we could have never accomplished on our own,” says Rebecca about her growing relationship with Jason and Alina Flowers of South Euclid.
“The most important thing is that we’re all a part of humanity and I feel like the Stegalls helped me to learn that in an everyday practical way,” says Alina, who is also a mother of four.
The Flowers and Stegalls say they started the relationship by getting their families together for dinner. The wives bonded over Rebecca’s willingness to research braiding Black hair and the fact that each family has a child with the same allergy. Both couples say the relationship has helped them grow in their understanding.
“You want to base and make friendships and relationships not on race and color but really on the character of the person. What are their hearts like? Are they genuine?” Alina shares.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE?
So what does it take to build relationships across racial divides? The answer, according to Glass, comes down to a four-letter word.
“What it really takes at the end of the day is love,” says Glass. “Genuine, I am concerned about you love.”
Speaking of love, the organization Love Akron awarded Pastor McKee and Pastor Glass their 2016 Allies Award because of their joint commitment to racial reconciliation.
“It’s the result of recognized effort,” says Glass. “They wanted to bring attention not so much to Rick and I but they wanted to bring attention to what we were doing.”
It's work the two say they're committed to doing for the long haul because they believe the fruit of their efforts will be not be seen immediately, but in the next generation .... a generation they hope will live out the example of standing united.