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Jasper, Texas & region experiencing racial healing after James Byrd murder

JASPER, Texas (BP)–In Jasper, Texas, where white racists brutally murdered a black man last year, a pastor has found himself in the midst of a heaven-sent reconciliation among the races.
The crime was almost unimaginably cruel. Three men picked up hitchhiker James Byrd Jr., beat him, chained him by the ankles, dragged him behind a truck for miles on back roads until his body fell apart, then dumped the corpse near a black cemetery, as recounted in national news reports.
Courts convicted self-proclaimed white supremacists John W. King, 24, and Lawrence R. Brewer, 32, in the June 7, 1998, slaying and sentenced them to death. Both men were members of the Confederate Knights of America prison gang while jailed together. A third man, Shawn A. Berry, 24, faces trial.
Out of the tragedy, a “move of the Lord” is occurring in the small east Texas town and is spreading to other parts of Texas, Charles Burchett, pastor of 100-year-old First Baptist Church in Kirbyville, a few miles from Jasper, told ReligionToday, an Internet Christian news service. Burchett, who grew up in First Baptist Church, Dallas, and earned an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth in 1976, is prayer coordinator for the Sabine Valley Baptist Association and regional coordinator for the evangelical Pray Texas network.
The movement toward racial healing began even before Byrd’s slaying. In March 1998, during a conference at Burchett’s church, Joyce and Tim James, an African American couple from Houston, told stories of how racism had wounded them. For three hours, the audience of 250 Christians from 12 all-white congregations prayed, wept and asked God’s forgiveness for harboring racism in their hearts. A week after Byrd’s murder, the Jameses returned to east Texas and preached at a black church located at the former site of the slave quarters of a plantation.
Weeks later, Burchett spoke at two very different events. When Republican Party leaders asked him to deliver the opening prayer at the GOP’s state convention in Fort Worth, he prayed in frank terms that God would replace “pride, hatred, superiority, anger, racism and stubbornness” among white Christians with “humility, brotherly love, servant-heartedness, peace, unity of the spirit, brokenness and repentance.”
The prayer was noted in newspapers in Dallas and Houston, prompting the NAACP to ask Burchett to address a meeting in Jasper June 27, the same day the Ku Klux Klan was to meet in the town.
As a 50-year-old white man, Burchett never thought he would attend a meeting of the NAACP, much less speak at one. The highly charged atmosphere that day was “like nothing I had ever experienced before as a white guy,” he recounted, writing in Pray! magazine, published by NavPress of the Navigators ministry, “The room was crowded with politicians, activists, militants and emotionally wounded people who were looking for justice through eyes that had seen a lifetime of dehumanizing rejection and malicious hatred.” After two other speakers, a number of people in the room walked out when Burchett rose to speak.
Burchett began to confess to the all-black crowd the sins that white people had committed against blacks for 400 years. “I know that we don’t deserve forgiveness, but would you forgive me, and us?” he pleaded. Soon, many were weeping, and the wailing was so loud that the militants returned to see what was happening.
People surrounded Burchett, who was kneeling with his head bowed, and touched their hands to him in prayer. Then a man came to the microphone and said, “Lord, if we don’t forgive this man, you won’t forgive us.”
“What began as a forum for voicing injustice that had been festering for decades became a rally for reconciliation as a throng of weeping African Americans gathered on their knees around a repentant and sobbing white man,” Burchett recounted in Pray!
This May¸ another hate-induced murder occurred in Lone Oak, Texas. M.H. Walker, a black man, was “bound hand and foot to a tree with barbed wire by two or more white men,” doused with three gallons of gasoline and burned alive, Burchett said. Police found what remained of Walker’s charred corpse when a prison inmate bragged about the crime, he said.
Days after the crime, Burchett, speaking at a packed Greenville Civic Center, again confessed racist actions and attitudes of the white race, “especially white people who claim to know and serve Jesus Christ as Lord.” Bill Benner, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, joined Burchett as the two apologized to blacks for the sign that had hung prominently in Greenville for many years, reading, “Welcome to Greenville where we have the blackest dirt and the whitest people.” The sign has been gone for years, but “racist motivations and insensitivities are still present,” Burchett said.
After speaking at the Civic Center, Burchett gathered with NAACP leaders and family and friends of the murder victim around the tree where Walker had been cruelly slain. “How do we fight an enemy that we can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell?” Burchett asked. “What law can be enacted against a principality and power? How can we effectively march against world forces of darkness and spiritual forces of wickedness? As with every issue, our only real and powerful hope is Jesus.”
Holding a piece of unleavened bread and a cup of grape juice, “I told them of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus,” Burchett said. “I testified of his lordship and his cleansing power. Then I asked for all those present who would publicly claim Jesus as Lord to join me in asking Jesus to cleanse this land where innocent blood had been shed.”
“When will the hatred and murder stop?” Burchett asked. There will be real change only when the church rejects its pride and self-centeredness and adopts a “brokenness and humility before the Lord” and a humble, servant-hearted attitude before other people, he said. “God says the time for changes is now.”
Some people’s hearts have changed in east Texas, Burchett said. Jasper’s First Baptist Church, which never had a black member, wholeheartedly received a 20-year-old black man for baptism and church membership in January, he said. The wrought-iron fence that had divided the Jasper Cemetery into black and white sections was pulled down and hauled away three days later as a crowd of white and black civic leaders and citizens held hands in prayer.
Burchett, who used to travel “none at all,” has been speaking widely at prayer rallies and pastors’ meetings about unity. “Some places are dry, cold and hard, and others are amazing” in their openness, he said, noting that in Lufkin, Texas, for example, more than 30 pastors from all races and a range of denominations meet weekly and have signed a covenant with each other to work together for Jesus Christ.
Pierce is editor of ReligionToday, at ReligionToday.com on the Internet. Art Toalston contributed to this article, which is used with permission. Pray! magazine, which devoted an issue to prayer, repentance and reconciliation, can be contacted at 1-800-691-PRAY.

    About the Author

  • Larry Pierce