On opposite ends of Columbia, South Carolina, two pastors shepherd two very different churches. The Meeting Place Church International is an African-American congregation, led by Bishop Eric Freeman. Trinity Baptist Church is a predominantly white congregation, led by Dr. Eddie Coakley. These men come from different backgrounds and experiences, but both have a relationship with Jesus Christ and a shared understanding of the ministry of reconciliation.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes that God has given Christians the ministry of reconciliation — helping others understand and receive God’s grace and forgiveness for sins. When a person is reconciled to God through Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.
The two pastors and their congregations recently joined together along with some other churches for an evening of praise through hymn singing, followed by an ice cream fellowship. This wasn’t the first time the two churches had come together. However, it was their first combined event since a gunman shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston and just two days after the removal of the Confederate flag from a monument on the South Carolina State House grounds.
We never know what a day will hold or what change 24 hours will bring. A single event can radically alter the course of life. But, can moments we’d rather not face produce something good? For the Christian, the answer is yes.
Romans 8:28 (NIV) says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
The Meeting Place and Trinity Baptist began a partnership in early 2014. How did the partnership start?
Eric: It was at the National Day of Prayer in the spring of 2014 where we finally connected and exchanged numbers. Eddie was kind enough to invite me for lunch. Literally, over lunch, breaking bread together, our friendship began.
Eddie: I felt like our spirits connected immediately. I’m an uptight, nerdy theology guy, so it was very important to me that this partnership was Christ-centered. It didn’t matter to me what his title was or mine. What mattered most was that theologically we were in the same place. What we think about Jesus is what brings the unity that is so important.
Eric: Eddie was very upfront and said, “I’m really trying to figure out a way to reach a demographic that looks like the community our church is in.”
Eddie: I remember saying, “I’m probably going to stick my foot in my mouth, and I don’t know what to say. I know that God has called me to love people of all colors. What I don’t know is how to reach black people with the Gospel.” Eric told me that was something he was trying to figure out too. In my mind that was a great response. It was a great reminder to me that there is not a formula or a way you reach black people, and there is not a way you reach white people.
What did your initial discussions about forming a partnership include?
Eric: One of the things Eddie and I discussed when we began to explore and pray about how our congregations could come together, was we accepted the fact that it wouldn’t feel natural. We knew the awkwardness would be a result of doing something that we are not accustomed to doing. It’s akin to going to the gym for the first time. I said to my people early on, “This will not feel natural, but going to the gym doesn’t feel natural. When you go to the gym for the first time and you pick up weights, you’re a little awkward. This is the same way, but you endure that process, because you know that it’s the best thing for the body to be healthy.
Eddie: The reality is that if you go to the gym with a friend, the awkwardness gets cut in half. You just need somebody to be with you to feel like you’re accepted. You know that it may not go well or be perfect every time, but that’s okay. I think that’s why this partnership has been so good. I’ve been very encouraged by how hospitable and loving Eric’s church has been.
You both made sure that your staff members spent time together before the two churches gathered for a service. That helped establish a good foundation for the congregations to meet. What was that first joint service like?
Eddie: While we were at Eric’s church for our first joint service, one of the oldest men in my church came up to me. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but I was instantly encouraged. He said, “Pastor, we should have done this 40 years ago. This was so good.” Then, he just started crying. That’s the work of the Spirit. I think because Eric and I began a friendship first, then our staff members were together ahead of time, our people were able to come together. Next, hopefully it’s the city. That’s how God works.
Eric: I think being able to sit down and break bread together was a part of what accelerated the momentum of the fellowship. I think Eddie is right. It’s incremental. I think if we are willing to go through the awkward moment, have those tough conversations, share with one another, and risk some who won’t understand, then we get surprised sometimes. The people who we think won’t like it are the ones most impacted by the ministry of our fellowship.
The Gospel is the solution to the hatred that is all around us whether it is racial in nature or another form of hate.
Churches across South Carolina, the state and the nation spent the Sunday following the Charleston shooting praying for the victims’ families. The shooter, a white male, targeted African Americans. What was your focus when you stepped in the pulpit for the first time after the shooting?
Eric: On that Sunday, my work was to figure out how to direct the hurt. For my congregation, there was hurt, because it could have been them. Senator Clementa Pinckney (one of the nine church shooting victims) was a seminary classmate of mine. When it first happened, I was on my phone with my closest friends who are leaders in the AME church. We were trying to figure out how to deal with the hurt of racism raising its head again. The shooting was another reminder, in a very painful way, of this issue in our nation that won’t go away.
Eddie: I really tried to focus on the Gospel and the power of God’s love. The Gospel is the solution to the hatred that is all around us whether it is racial in nature or another form of hate. Like many other churches, we took time during our services to pray for the victims’ families.
In the days following the shooting, our state and the nation witnessed some of the victims’ families express forgiveness toward the shooter. When Facebook images of the suspect with a Confederate flag surfaced, many felt it was time for the flag to come down. The flag, a symbol of hate and racism to many and a symbol of heritage and history to others, eventually came down. How does a pastor respond biblically to varying views surrounding this issue?
Eric: The hearts of individuals need to change. As we’ve both already said, it is us, our staff members, our congregations, communities and the city. We are shifting a culture. In many ways, we’re shifting the atmosphere for how people are thinking about things. That’s the reason there was so much aggressive divisiveness around the symbol of the flag. I believe that the Adversary knew if the symbol that perpetuated racism was gone, then he couldn’t have a stronghold anymore.
Eddie: For me the point is that, in light of the cross, am I going to let this issue or any others keep me from loving my brother? The great thing about God’s radical love is that you can say to anyone who is living in submission to Christ, “Show me in the Bible where it says that I should put my preference for this issue ahead of my love for Eric.” You can never do that. If what I’m doing hurts my brother, then I should be willing to stop the offense.
Eric: After the flag came down, I encouraged my members to not become cynical and think that removing the flag wouldn’t change peoples’ hearts. I offered that encouragement because I kept hearing people in our community say that the flag coming down doesn’t change anything. It changes two things. First, it removes a powerful symbol. If you think something shouldn’t come down until hearts are changed, then we might as well put back up the “whites only” and the “colored” signs. Those signs came down before hearts were changed. Secondly, you give the impression that there is no hope. Every step taken to unite people should be celebrated and embraced by the community, even if people don’t fully understand.
There are communities across the state, as well as churches, wondering how to move forward. While the magnitude of what has happened in South Carolina in recent months settles in, the work toward unity and Christ-like reconciliation must continue. What does that look like?
Eric: I do believe that when we come together with our eyes on something more than just a few people — when we look at congregations and communities — and figure out how we can show the reconciling love of Christ, then we will see something that will change our city. That’s where I believe the real fight is.
Eddie: It’s going to take intentional leadership. We are going to have to do some things on purpose that are difficult but are also going to move this forward. I want our congregations to grow in this area. So we need to intentionally make it happen.
What does moving forward look like for your partnership?
Eric: To use the example we started with, I think we keep going to the gym and set some goals around what healthy looks like. We will plan some activities that would be good to help reach those goals. Then we can evaluate and set new goals. Again, it’s me and Eddie, our staff members, congregations and communities. We will keep expanding the fellowship. Then all of the sudden going to the gym will seem less awkward, and we will get stronger together.
Eddie: I can’t help but think that Eric and his church didn’t need nine people to die to be shaken about racism, but there are a lot of white people who did. Sometimes we have to be shaken to realize that there is a problem. It makes a lot more sense for Trinity Baptist to be more strategic now. If I had said before that we were going to work on race, people might have wondered why the church would focus on the issue. Now the reality is obvious. God wants us to do more than just get to know Eric’s church. God wants us to be more impactful. As long as we keep having grace for each other, then we can try things that may fail. That’s OK. The point is we are trying — together. •LR•
Kelly Coakley is the wife of Trinity Baptist Church Senior Pastor Dr. Eddie Coakley in Cayce, SC, and has enjoyed watching this Christ-centered friendship with Bishop Eric Freeman develop.