Members of several churches gather for a “Lilburn United” rally in Lilburn City Park July 24. They sought unity in the face of racial divisions that continue to dominate national headlines. KENT D. JOHNSON/ Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

Gwinnett churches seek to bridge racial divides

At the First Baptist Church of Lilburn, the congregation gathered in the main sanctuary on any given Sunday looks much the same as it has for decades — mostly white, many graying.

But elsewhere at the church, some 50 Bhutanese and Nepalis sang hymns in Hindi. About 20 Haitians prayed in French Creole. Several dozen Chinese adults listened to a sermon in both Mandarin and Cantonese. A handful of Korean youths memorized Bible verses in English.

With services and Bible studies in more than a dozen languages, First Baptist is unlike most historically white Southern churches. But it is very much like Gwinnett County.

Over the last quarter century, Gwinnett has transformed from a homogeneous enclave to a melting pot of races, ethnicities and languages. It’s a microcosm of the demographic forces that are changing the face of America.

Those changes — along recent terrorist attacks, controversial police shootings and retaliatory attacks — have inflamed long-simmering racial and political divisions nationwide.

But in Georgia’s second-largest county, some churches are finding ways to bind wounds and cross racial divides. They’ve added services and programs to reach new communities and younger generations.

They may not solve America’s political problems, but parishioners say they’re showing that God’s love can be a uniting force.

“It’s a tragedy, I think, what’s going on in the world,” said Pastor Ken Hall, who recently left First Baptist to lead a congregation in South Carolina. “Personally, I believe the answer is a spiritual answer.”

A changing community

Lilburn hasn’t always been regarded as welcoming. Some city residents protested when a mosque tried to expand on Lawrenceville Highway in 2009.

After initially denying the request, the city agreed to allow the expansion two years later to settle a federal lawsuit.

Lilburn also is home to the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha Mandir, where several hundred Hindu families worship.

Representatives of the mosque and the temple said they have good relations with the community.

Hall, the former First Baptist pastor, said Christian churches have a “tough wire to walk” when it comes to other religions.

“They have as much right to be there as First Baptist Lilburn,” he said. “I would embrace a Muslim or a Hindu as a person. I do not embrace what they stand for as a religion.”

For much of its existence, First Baptist Church of Lilburn was a largely white congregation in a largely white city in a largely white county. In 1990, when the church celebrated its 150th anniversary, 92 percent of Lilburn residents and 89 percent of Gwinnett residents were white.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of African Americans, Latinos and Asians have come to the Atlanta suburbs, drawn by a booming Sun Belt economy. Today, less than 40 percent of Gwinnett and Lilburn residents are non-Hispanic whites.

As Lilburn’s minority population boomed, some white churches followed their members to more distant suburbs. First Baptist stayed.

“Whoever comes, we’ll stay here and see that as our mission field,” Hall said.

First Baptist launched a service in Spanish in 2004. It grew quickly and has since become an independent church.

Other services in different languages followed. Today, its members worship in such languages as Amharic, Arabic, Farsi, Hmong and Vietnamese. The church also offers English and citizenship classes.

“You can’t find this in a lot in American churches nationwide,” said Pastor Mokhles Hanna of the Arabic congregation. “For a church to open its door wide for everyone to worship in his native language, that’s a blessing.”

Prayers for forgiveness

On a recent sweltering Sunday evening, more than 400 people gathered at Lilburn City Park to worship. It was billed as a “Lilburn United” rally, organized by local churches that wanted to show they are one in Christ, despite the political and racial divisions that have preoccupied the country.

Whites, blacks and Latinos locked hands in prayer. Stephen Hartley, a white associate pastor at Lilburn Alliance Church, led one of them. He asked forgiveness “for the hatred, rage, anger, and murder that has taken place in our nation.”

“For the lives and families that have been affected by the shootings and killing African American men: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Dante Parker, Philando Castile and Freddie Gray. Lord forgive us.

“For the lives and families that have been affected by the shootings and killing of police officers: Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald. Lord forgive us.”

Brandon Garrett, a pastor at Mountain Park First Baptist, which organized the event, called it “the Christian alternative to this narrative of hate and violence and irreconcilable differences that’s put forward by the media.”

“How can the church stand together and proclaim that’s not the whole story?” Garret said. “In fact, the church would say — I would say — it’s not even the true story.”

The pleas for unity moved some just walking by the park to join in. Carmen Wolter and her friends from La Nueva Iglesia de Dios – the New Church of God – didn’t know about the rally, but found themselves huddled in a circle, praying with strangers.

“That’s what the Lord wants,” she said. “He wants us to be together.”

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