Evoking Sorrowful Remembrances
RED OAK, Texas — While not naively believing the three-day Reach Conference would transform society, the 345 predominantly black attendees of the event that ended Thursday did allow African-American Assemblies of God leaders to reflect on mistreatment and oppression experienced during much of the nation’s history.
The biennial convention of the National Black Fellowship, one of 22 ethnic and language fellowships in the AG, was hosted by The Oaks Fellowship, a primarily white AG megachurch in the Dallas suburb of Red Oak, a venue selected a year ago —long before the July 7 murders of five white police officers in Dallas by Micah Xavier Johnson. Those officers patrolled the streets during a peaceful protest staged in the wake of the shooting fatalities of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.
For NBF Vice President Walter Harvey, the racial conflict this month represents another missed opportunity for Christians to blaze a trail of reconciliation. He said Christians in the U.S. have avoided such openings since the antebellum days of slavery, the Jim Crow laws established in the wake of Reconstruction, and the legal segregation patterns in place until the civil rights era.
“God’s heart is breaking and Jesus is weeping over our nation like He wept over Jerusalem because our nation has missed opportunities to walk in reconciliation,” said Harvey, senior pastor since 1993 of Parklawn Assembly of God in the heart of Milwaukee. “In the inner cities of America it’s a cry that has turned to a shout of rage and anger on behalf of people of color, who have been disproportionately victimized by poverty and injustice.”
Harvey, 56, condemned the shootings by Johnson, as well as the executions of three officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 17 by Gavin Long, another black man. Long served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq; Johnson was an Army veteran who went to Afghanistan.
In many regards, little has changed since the 1960s, according to Zollie L. Smith Jr., executive director of AG U.S. Missions. Smith, who earlier served as NBF president for a decade, had reservations that the small denominational conference would impact the national stage.
Smith and Harvey believe many U.S. cities have long been a cauldron of ills for blacks, including high unemployment figures, outsized male incarceration rates, broken homes, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and violence.
Oppression against black men isn’t anything new, noted Smith, who worked as a policeman after returning from U.S. Army duty in the Vietnam War.
Still, African-American leaders expressed cautious optimism that the conference can begin to change individual minds. Harvey noted that Christ and His followers could offer the solution to racial-based violence.
“Revolution says I’ll kill you to get my way,” Harvey said. “The people of God have been given the ministry of reconciliation. The National Black Fellowship has been divinely placed in urban communities for such a time as this to bring a sense of peace, direction, and vision.”
The gathering in Dallas proved providential, Harvey believed.
“It’s an indication of God’s hand upon our Fellowship that He wants us to no longer miss opportunities,” Harvey said. “Once again God is giving us a Kairos moment, a window of opportunity, to carry this torch of unity.”
NBF Executive Treasurer Darnell Williams, 49, said Christians should see each other first as brothers and sisters united by faith rather than through any ethnic lens.
“The breakdown is because we don’t understand each other,” said Williams, pastor of the multiethnic New Life Church International in Lima, Ohio. “If we can begin to understand one another’s perspective and hear each other’s voice, then mutual respect and mutual admiration arise.”
“It’s difficult for the Church to transform spiritually when there is old baggage,” says Smith, 67, the highest-ranking black executive in the Pentecostal denomination and one of six top elected leaders based at the national office in Springfield, Missouri. “As a Fellowship we need to find solutions to the social ills of society through honest and truthful dialogue vetted through Scripture. Love is the bond of completion and the Church has to be the leader to the world in demonstrating brotherhood through genuine agape love.”
“Racial divisions are deep-seated in America, and racial issues are a delicate topic at all levels of society — political, theological, and socioeconomic,” says NBF President Michael Nelson, 54, pastor of The House of Peace in Jacksonville, Florida. “The Church is uniquely fitted and singularly gifted to engage society in a dialogue about these divisions. However the dialogue must be done with a biblical foundation, coupled with honesty about history and a readiness to respond to the Holy Spirit’s leadership.”
AG North Texas District Superintendent Rick DuBose, who is white, said he felt honored that such a unifying meeting was held in Dallas at such a strategic time.
“You don’t know about somebody until you immerse yourself in their culture,” DuBose, 59, said. “We have to help people stop making a judgment on color that is different.”
Pictured (from left): Assemblies of God African-American leaders Walter Harvey, Michael Nelson, and Zollie Smith talk during a break at the National Black Fellowship Reach Conference.