With one of the most contentious symbols of the Confederacy as a backdrop, thousands of people gathered at Stone Mountain on Saturday and called for an end to racism and hatred.
They had a singular message in mind: It will take the church to heal a badly fractured nation.
“A lot of voices in society and politics are speaking about divisions in the nation, but we don’t hear much from the church,” said Billy Humphrey, co-founder of the OneRace movement and director of Atlanta’s International House of Prayer. “At times, the church has been on the sidelines. At times, the church has been silent. We can’t be silent anymore.”
Humphrey said it was time for the “church,” in a figurative sense, to “take a stand for love and unity around the cross of Jesus.”
It was a diverse gathering, racially, all ages and from various denominations. At one point, a speaker urged people to hug someone “who doesn’t look like you.” Organizers said more than 12,000 people had registered to attend, although it’s unknown how many actually showed up for the one-day event.
The OneRace movement began about two years ago with about six pastors - black and white. That grew, eventually reaching 250.
“The issue of racial healing is very, very important,” said Bishop Garland Hunt, senior pastor of The Father’s House in Norcross and co-executive director of OneRace. “Our country is divided and the church is, unfortunately, divided out of frustration and pain.”
Indeed, there is a growing divide between white evangelical Christians, a high percentage of whom voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and black evangelical Christians.
In many cases, that divide stems from different views about justice and racism. Many black Christians, for instance, wondered where their white fellow Christians were when black men like Michael Brown and Philando Castile were killed by police. They hoped for condemnation from white evangelical leaders when Trump blamed both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville or when he said “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” Trump’s supporters would point out in regards to Charlottesville clashes, he also said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”
However, at Saturday’s gathering, both Humphrey and Hunt were reluctant to delve into politics.
“We don’t want to make this political because that’s a measure to divide,” said Hunt, who has known Humphrey for about two decades. “Jesus didn’t die for us based upon our political positions.”
There’s been lack of understanding on both sides, several attendees said.
“Whites feel blacks need to get over it and many times blacks feel whites don’t get it,” Hunt said.
Leela Brown-Waller, pastor of of Kings Chapel AME Church in Smyrna, said, “Hatred has raised its head. It’s OK to hate now.”
She has noticed that there is sometimes a disconnect between Christians of different races and genders.
“It’s our culture. Our culture has allowed this. Sunday is one of the most segregated days of the week. I believe beginning that conversation of unity is the answer. Conversation and relationships bring along unity. When we prayed together today and when we confessed our sins that began the unity.”
Brown-Waller of Kennesaw noted this was just days from the 55th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which made the OneRace event more significant. It was an emotional day for Brown-Waller, who grew up in Stone Mountain and was the first black cheerleader at her high school.
She recalls growing up in the area known for the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and seeing KKK members walk around in their white robes and hearing sounds from their rallies.
“I’m especially excited to see the millennials,” she said of Saturday’s gathering. More than 2,000 people identified as millennials hiked to the top of Stone Mountain, where they prayed and listened to speakers and music.
Both the top of the mountain and the grassy area at the base were packed with people, some wearing T-shirts that said “Reconcile” or “Repent” and others carrying signs and banners that read “Let Justice Flow” and “God We Repent.”
“This is a powerful moment to see 200-plus churches come together ,” said Tara Teuta of Snellville, who said she has friends who refuse to come to Stone Mountain because of its history. “Martin Luther King’s dream was to see this. I love it.”
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The New York transplant said she never saw color until she moved South. “I realized it is a huge divide.”
Peyton Gross, a worship pastor at his church, said the day signaled a “turning point for the community, the region and around the world. This is a step towards racial healing and justice.”
One of the most moving moments came when Ferrell Brown, a pastor who said he was a descendant of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, repented for his family’s past sins and asked forgiveness. Next to him stood the Rev. Anthony Thompson and Rose Simmons, who both lost loved ones in 2015 when a 21-year-old white man opened fire during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine black churchgoers.
Thompson shared that he has asked to meet with Dylann Roof, the killer of his wife, Myra, and prays for him every day.
“I think we have to end this tension between races,” said Denny Jarrett, a retired airline pilot. “We’re all brother and sister.”
It can start, he said “with a cup of coffee, a dinner invitation or helping someone do something. Then you will find that we’re not so different.
Added Humphreys: “A lot of people are disenfranchised because the church has been divided so long. But we all worship the same Jesus. …We want to come together across cultures and ask for forgiveness and calling the church together as an example of what it could look like when people are unified.”
The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, is skeptical.
McDonald, who didn’t attend the event, said Trump has stoked the flames of racial divisiveness. Racism has always been around but the election of Trump “has ratcheted” things up, he believes.
McDonald said white evangelicals “want everybody to be like them and it’s creating a rift. If you’re not like them, then you’re not Christian. There’s no social justice. There’s no economic justice. There’s no political justice, which I think Jesus would definitely be about. A lot of what is happening is inconsistent with the Prophetic Scripture.”
Pastor Samuel Giles of Life Center Ministries in Dunwoody was among the faithful gathered Saturday at Stone Mountain and was optimistic. He said from the darkest hour, a light shines brightest.
“This was such a strong demonstration of the heart of Jesus to unify people under one race,” he said.
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