OPINION: Jesus and beer are not such strange bedfellows

Members of Bridging the Gap, a mulitracial, multiethnic men's fellowship group based in North Fulton, pose with Bob Dickinson (seated) during a book signing. Dickinson joined the group after reading about their efforts at racial reconciliation in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Mark Meadows

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Members of Bridging the Gap, a mulitracial, multiethnic men's fellowship group based in North Fulton, pose with Bob Dickinson (seated) during a book signing. Dickinson joined the group after reading about their efforts at racial reconciliation in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Mark Meadows

On a recent Saturday, the deck at Currahee Brewing Co. was filled with men sipping beer and enjoying breezy banter.

The energy is different on Friday nights when Bob Dickinson sits on the same deck and finds himself alone with his thoughts, a beer and a cigar. During the early days of the pandemic, he also found revelations.

During his daily devotional, Dickinson, a media and business development executive, felt called to blog about the state of the world. It was just a few weeks before George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

“That set me back,” an emotional Dickinson told the crowd of about 50 assembled at the Alpharetta microbrewery. “I asked God to bring reason to an unreasonable world.”

Dickinson attended OneRace Movement’s March in Atlanta on Juneteenth 2020 at Centennial Park, joining hundreds of other people who shared the organization’s mission of “teaching a city to love, regardless of color, class or culture.”

A year after that event, I wrote a column about two neighbors in Johns Creek who reached across the racial divide and invited men at their respective churches — St. James United Methodist Church, whose congregation is predominantly Black, and Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, whose members are predominantly white – to meet for bible study.

ExploreOPINION: Bridging the racial gap is an act of faith for north Fulton men

The effort would spread to another church in the area, Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, eventually uniting about 140 men via a virtual faith-based conference on racial reconciliation.

Dickinson, who is white, was determined to embrace a new way of thinking. He joined the predominantly Black congregation at St. James. He also read my column. Last fall, he became one of the newest members of Bridging the Gap Men’s Fellowship Group, Inc.

“If we are going to change things, we have to be intentional about seeking out people who aren’t like us,” said Dickinson. “We never get past the formalities. We have to get deeper than that.”

In his book, “Me, Jesus, a Beer and a Cigar,” Dickinson uses a compilation of old and new writings and commentary to encourage conversations about all the ways in which life has gone awry these past few years and how we can and should take a different view, using scripture as our guide.

Members of the Bridging the Gap fellowship group, now dubbed BTG, were on hand to hear Dickinson’s remarks.

When I walked into Currahee, I saw a labyrinth of brew kettles and men of all races greeting each other with hugs and claps on the back, openly and genuinely celebrating their connection to one another.

This is apparently an unexpected scene in North Fulton.

Michael Jordan, global ministry pastor at Mount Pisgah and member of BTG, recalled the time several members were enjoying a meal at a restaurant only to be approached by other diners who were so surprised to see the multiracial/multiethnic posse, they couldn’t help but ask “What are you doing together?”

If it is so unusual in 2021 to see a multiracial group of men enjoying fellowship, it can only be a testament to just how far we have to go on the path to racial healing.

Before joining BTG, Jordan, who is white, realized he had nowhere to turn for conversation about what was happening in the world. “I wanted to talk about what was going on and the people I know and love didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. The only Black friends he had were African nationals who lived in Africa.

Since my last conversation with BTG, the group had hosted another round of small group sessions and picked up more than 40 members. At an April cookout, they recruited 30 more men.

Membership requires completing eight small group discussions, agreeing to work toward racial harmony though the love of Jesus and donating a minimum of $1 each year to the effort.

It also means adhering to the three pillars that are cornerstones of their interactions: “100% truth, 100% love and 100% grace,” said Quentin Jones, who had made that first effort to bond with his neighbor two years ago.

I asked Rolando Outland, a Black member who joined last fall, why he thought this kind of bonding had not happened earlier in his life. “I was not intentional. I grew up in a small town in Alabama. I didn’t have reason or opportunity to pursue those relationships,” Outland said.

A few days after he shared similar sentiments in a small group session, he got a phone call from a white man inviting him for dinner. “We shut the place down,” Outland said.

Outland knew that kind of relationship was not going to happen organically for him. I don’t think it happens organically for most of us. It takes time to build any relationship, but relationships that are hamstrung by adherence to wrongheaded social mores are that much harder to build.

Today BTG has members from 11 different churches, mostly in North Fulton but also from Ellijay, Norcross and Powder Springs. Other congregations, including several out of state, have reached out to BTG to ask how they got started, the type of synergy they have and the mechanics of getting it done, Jones said.

Jordan and Jones know that their growth will require them to reach beyond the borders of North Fulton to other Black churches. “If (the group sessions) are not racially mixed, then we can’t have the conversations we usually have,” Jordan said.

As BTG starts to push its boundaries, Dickinson said he hopes to help find a Black church on Atlanta’s Westside that might be interested in participating in upcoming small groups.

But on that recent Saturday at Currahee, the men of BTG were just a bunch of guys hanging out and celebrating the achievement of one of their brothers. In one last call to action, Dickinson asked the assembly to do him a favor.

“Meet someone you haven’t met before you get out of here,” he said. “Learn to love people who are different from you.”

It sounds simple, but it has to start with hello.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.