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African refugee becomes pastor of white congregation in Ky. town

OWENSBORO, Ky. (BP)–The first African to pastor a predominantly white church in Owensboro, Ky., said instead of talking about racial reconciliation, his congregation lives it.
Liberian native Garswa Matally became pastor of Wing Avenue Baptist Church in mid-January, following about 10 weeks as interim pastor.
“I think the people have an understanding of Christian love,” said the 1993 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Race doesn’t seem to make any difference.”
A seven-member search committee unanimously recommended Matally as the right person for the job.
“We’re not trying to set any kind of precedents,” said committee chairman Mike Little. “We just feel he’s the man God called to be our pastor and I’m very excited about it.”
“We don’t look at Garswa as a black man, but as our spiritual leader,” member Darlene Blair said. “He’s feeding us and giving us what we need.”
Matally’s first pastoral experience came in his West African homeland, where civil war forced his family to flee to Ghana. He started a church in a refugee camp before coming to the Louisville seminary.
After graduation, he answered a call from Cedar Street Baptist in Owensboro. He left the black mission in 1997 and had been working another job while doing supply preaching.
Members of Wing Avenue were already acquainted with him, since they hosted a household shower for his family after they moved to the western Kentucky city.
When their former pastor left last summer, deacon chairman Bob Williams led the search for speakers. When he asked Matally to come, the first sermon stirred favorable reactions.
“It was tremendous,” said Williams, a member of Wing Avenue since it began in 1955 as a mission of First Baptist Church.
“Many people commented on how they wanted him back,” he said. “They were also vocal in expressing their desire to have him as interim [pastor].”
Though located in a racially mixed neighborhood, Wing Avenue’s membership rolls only include one other African American family. However, several blacks have visited recently.
While neither the pastor nor search committee members have placed a strong focus on racial reconciliation, members believe having a pastor of a different color has made a difference.
“We feel that God’s working,” Blair said. “We’re more loving than before. I tried to love everybody, but through this experience God has opened a lot of our hearts.”
Matally agreed that his selection could help break down barriers.
He would like to see more black families join, saying the congregation should reflect the larger church’s diverse colors and background. However, he is also aware that his presence could create a backlash.
He prays calmer heads prevail, adopting the teaching of Henry Blackaby’s “Experiencing God” course: “I hope people will see God is doing something different and we will join him in what he is doing.”
Williams, in addition to describing Matally’s preaching as “excellent,” said he has proved to be an excellent pastor.
Besides visiting families in crisis, he is doing premarital counseling, which recently led one couple to accept Jesus as their Savior. As interim, he volunteered to teach a new believer’s Sunday school class, which wasn’t expected, Williams said.
After Matally assumed interim duties, Wing Avenue took in the highest offerings during a one-month period for the past five years, Williams added.
“I told the church council, ‘It’s a sign from God,'” he said. “We have a group of people willing to do God’s work. We were just looking for someone to lead us.”
Besides crediting the people’s love, the pastor sees their hunger for scriptural teaching as the other reason for his acceptance by the church.
“They want to know the Word of God,” Matally said. “I’ve been looking for a church that wants to receive the Word of God.”

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  • Ken Walker