What Happened When a Black Church in Atlanta Went in Search of White Christians to Talk About Race

Clockwise from left, Mary Louise and Stephen Gilkenson, Corliss and Melvin Kinard, Denise and Mike Moss, Eric and Becca Anderson, and Myles Lorenzen discuss during a “Grace and Race” seminar at Eagles Nest Church in Roswell on Saturday, May 6, 2017. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
Clockwise from left, Mary Louise and Stephen Gilkenson, Corliss and Melvin Kinard, Denise and Mike Moss, Eric and Becca Anderson, and Myles Lorenzen discuss during a “Grace and Race” seminar at Eagles Nest Church in Roswell on Saturday, May 6, 2017. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Pastor Lee Jenkins of Eagles Nest Church in Roswell wanted to find some way to engage white Christians about race.

As police shootings of African-Americans seemed to grow in number, he heard other black pastors talking about race, but he heard nothing from white pastors. It struck him as wrong.

So, last summer, Jenkins invited clergy from majority white congregations to to his church to learn about African-American history and to talk about what would be required to heal one of the nation’s oldest wounds.

He thought it would be an open conversation, not an easy one, but one of good will.

“It was, ‘They deserved it.’ ‘If liberals didn’t do this.’ ‘If the last eight years hadn’t been that,’” Jenkins said. “Their hearts weren’t broken. I was just discouraged.”

Then he met Lisa Harding and Matt Miller, pastor of Roswell Community Church. Meet all three and many others in our special report.

Ten strangers gathered in a well-appointed Woodstock home, brought together by seven dead men. 

The strangers began their meeting with grace and a potluck dinner. Maybe sharing pineapple casserole, salad and ham would make it less awkward to talk about the reason the seven men died.

When the plates were cleaned and the tables cleared, the group retired to the family room. Aqua silk curtains framed a sunset through tall windows overlooking the small waterfall in the manicured backyard. Smooth gospel music played in the background. To further set a mood of welcome and ease, one of the hosts, Corliss Kinard, lit a couple of scented candles.

The group formed a rough circle, some settling on couches, others sinking onto oversized chairs. Smiles were hesitant. The hard conversation was to come.

Melvin Kinard sat next to his 49-year-old wife in front of their massive hearth and read from the discussion guide. His voice was easy and authoritative, a product of 22 years as a naval officer. Now, at 58, he was retired and so was his wife, who’d been a naval officer just a few months longer than he had been.

» PHOTOS: Black church, white church discuss race

“We are here to learn and to connect, not to prove a point or demand affirmation,” Kinard read. “Don’t run away if you feel overwhelmed or offended. Stay engaged, the healing is not only for each of us, it is for the body of Christ.”

But they’d all signed up for this, hadn’t they, to talk about something most people avoid discussing in mixed company or don’t consider at all.

Six whites, three African-Americans, including the Kinards and Latysha Cameron, and one Chinese-American. On paper, without names and faces, their similarities were unremarkable: all parents, all solidly middle class, all Christians. Yet, each in his or her own way had been affected by race. Preconceived notions, stereotypes and prejudices had shaped them in ways obvious and unacknowledged.

Now, because of the dead men, the strangers were confronting America’s permanent stain.

Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers — Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa — were killed within three days of each other last July. Sterling was a black man killed by a white one. Castile was a black man killed by a Latino. The white and Latino Dallas officers were killed by a black man claiming to avenge the deaths of black men killed by white police officers.

Their deaths sparked protests across the country and intensified an unending debate over policing and race. The nation was transfixed by the convulsion, but different people saw different things. The color of their skin and their experience in it shaped their view. Which victims deserved sympathy? Which ones had been casualties of stereotypes, supremacy, misconceptions and lies? Which ones “brought it on themselves”? The summer was thick with questions.

At the same time, another disturbance, internal and intense, vibrated through two evangelical congregations in Roswell, one black, one white. It began with a black pastor who befriended a stranger, both of them shaken by the killings. With goodwill but much discomfort, they began a conversation. In seven months the two had become 200, almost all of them members at either Eagles Nest Church or Roswell Community Church.

Earlier this year, the two congregations broke into small groups to try to talk about the nation’s ugly racial history and their own biases with something approaching candor. Anything more than that would be a boon. Their goal was elusive, if for no other reason than the conversation was framed in black and white. The nation is far more diverse than the old, vexing dichotomy. But it’s where they agreed to start.

So, in the Kinard family room in Woodstock, the 10 people stepped out on faith, unsure where the path would lead.

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SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Rosalind Bentley