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Multiethnic church pastor: peacemaker amid violence

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP) — With Alton Sterling and three police officers dead amid racial tension in Baton Rouge, La., black pastor Vince Smith counts among his blessings his interracial marriage to Cassie and his pastorate of the multiethnic Circle Church.

Smith considers himself a peacemaker comforting those who mourn, whether they have lost loved ones at the hands of police or at the hands of civilians.

“The worst thing we can do as a multiethnic church is to dismiss the narrative of people,” said Smith, whose Southern Baptist congregation is 100 miles north of Baton Rouge in Alexandria. “When we raise one narrative as the normative point of view and the next narrative as secondary, then that is also dangerous. We don’t pick sides; we are in the middle being peacemakers.”

While racially charged violence brews in cities across the nation, Baton Rouge is where Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot dead by one of two white police officers who pinned him nearly immobile in a parking lot early July 5 after a 911 caller said Sterling had displayed a gun while selling CDs outside a convenience store.

Protests ensued, with a black man ambushing policemen nearly two weeks later, killing three officers, two white and one black.

Killed were Brad Garafola, 45, of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office; Montrell Jackson, 32, and Matthew Gerald, 41, both of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Police killed the shooter, identified as Gavin Long of Kansas City, Mo.

“Grief and lament are coming from those who have experienced police brutality [and from] families who have grieved [because of] similar situations and outright racism,” Smith told Baptist Press. “Then to another side, [grief is coming] from police officers who are doing their best to do their job to protect and serve, family members that are worried for police safety, and blatant disregard for police.”

Smith does not see silence as an option.

“Peacemakers are not silent; they are in the business of addressing issues, not oversimplifying them to just move along,” Smith said. “It is not our job to decipher whether or not people should be grieving; it’s our job to allow them to grieve and hurt with them.”

When the Baton Rouge police officers were killed, Jerome Coleman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Crestmont in Willow Grove, Pa., had just attended the Black Church Leadership and Family Conference at Ridgecrest, N.C.

Before leading conference attendees in prayer, Coleman shared his perspective as a current black Southern Baptist pastor and former Pennsylvania state parole agent.

Coleman encouraged worshippers to maintain levelheadedness amid news of such killings.

“I just want to remind you that a text without context is pretext for proof text. In other words, many times we will just get what the media wants us to get, or to stir up our emotions and things of that nature without having context of what is going on,” Coleman said. “And all I’m saying to you, when cooler heads prevail, we need to wait for the proof to come out.”

Coleman shared an experience from his law enforcement career that placed him in the basement of a home, with his gun drawn, in pursuit of an African American man hiding in the home to avoid arrest.

“Now luckily my training had taught me to keep my finger on the outside of the trigger guard when I’m carrying my gun. Because naturally when this young man popped up I flinched,” Coleman said. “And if my finger was inside the trigger guard, I would have shot an unarmed black man and I would have been on the news for shooting somebody that was unarmed and folk would have been outraged at me.”

For the most part, Coleman said, law enforcement officers and civilians alike are interested in doing their jobs and returning home safely to their families.

He evoked the parable of the Good Samaritan in explaining the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has included multiethnic crowds protesting — most often peacefully — across the country. Many have countered the movement with the mantra, “All lives matter.”

“I get that all lives matter. But if all lives matter, then when there’s a Jew beside the road beat up, Jewish lives matter. If all lives matter, then if I’m on my way down the road and a Samaritan is beat up, Samaritans’ lives matter,” Coleman said. “And if all lives matter and law enforcement is [attacked] … then law enforcement lives matter. And if all lives matter, then when … black men are being stopped unnecessarily, shot and killed and murdered, then black lives matter as well.”

In Alexandria, Smith has planted a church that is multiethnic by definition — 65 percent white, 33 percent black and 2 percent other ethnicities. A police officer is among the members.

“We have specifically prayed for and laid hands on him and his family during our time of worship in these past two weeks,” Smith said. “We also have constantly communicated with our people to steer clear from polarizing points of view.”

Smith has been intentional in building a multiethnic congregation.

“There are many churches that desire to be multiethnic but their leadership may not reflect it. Also throughout the New Testament we see Paul writing on the issue of table fellowship,” Smith said. “We believe that the most segregated hour in America is not Sunday at 11:00 anymore, but rather Friday at 6:00.

“What we mean by that is people may tolerate differences on Sunday morning but they have a hard time celebrating differences over dinner on Friday night. Pastor Bryan Loritts says, ‘Sanctuaries should reflect dinner tables,'” Smith quoted the pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, Calif., as saying. “The exposure of different people in our lives will allow us to grow in cross-cultural competency for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Smith is prayerfully navigating Circle Church to engage in intentional conversation about race, class, culture, police and related movements, he said.

Smith and his wife have seen firsthand the fruit of racism within a Christian context. Married in November 2012, their interracial union was poorly received by many, Smith said, and even sparked a deacons’ meeting at a church they attended.

“Some couples may have their first fight over grease stains on a chevron pillow. We faced families and whole churches disliking us,” Smith and his wife wrote in an article he sent to BP from MarriageRoots.com. “It kind of forces your faith to mature quickly. Those would have been the times when giving up would have been easy. Suffering comes in different forms. An avenue of suffering that strengthened our faith was not being celebrated everywhere we went.”