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Pastor’s prayer for co-worker answered as church builds race relation

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–In the early 1980s, Valley Park Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., could have joined the “white-flight” epidemic.
But this trend — in which the majority of white residents, and sometimes even entire churches, move out of an area that is becoming predominantly black — was not something Valley Park members wanted to do.
The church’s community, which transitioned from a white, middle-class makeup to one of African American predominance, provided the necessary ingredients for an integrated congregation.
As the church and many of its members remained in the changing community, the congregation reinforced its commitment to integrate by nominating its first black deacon, Harvey Brundidge.
Since that time, Valley Park has maintained its open-door policy and, especially in the last year and a half under pastor Kim Grueser, has made a concerted effort to reach those living nearby.
“We’re going against conventional wisdom,” said Grueser, describing the church’s decision to stay amidst the relocation of neighboring churches. “But I feel Valley Park’s best days are still ahead.”
Grueser’s optimism is buoyed by the bright smile of his newest co-worker, Sylvester Hardy, recently hired as minister of outreach and evangelism.
Hardy, who was unanimously approved by the congregation and commissioned Feb. 7, is the first full-time African American member of Valley Park’s ministerial staff.
“I had been praying for a black man to come help our church,” said Grueser, who feels that, along with youth minister Paul Burkett, “God brought this ministry team together.”
Hardy agreed it was the hand of providence that brought him to Valley Park.
Prior to coming to the church, he had been trying — unsuccessfully — to foster racial reconciliation at a predominantly black church he was serving at the time.
“[Racial prejudice] is on both ends,” Hardy noted.
After a frustrating sequence of similar responses from other area churches, Hardy felt God leading him to contact Valley Park.
He eventually called and, the next day, met Grueser for lunch. It was then he learned of Grueser’s kindred burden for an African American staff member.
“God told me to come here,” said Hardy, who Grueser pointed out did not want to be paid for his work.
Upon joining the staff, Hardy said he hopes to assist the church in presenting itself “in a way to show the community God’s love.”
Hardy’s work will center around meeting the spiritual needs of those who visit Valley Park’s community ministries center, open Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Along with financial and material assistance, its doors are open to those seeking financial counseling, job training and referrals and more.
Director Teri Rucker said she has also had the opportunity to lead a number of people to Christ through the center.
Besides the ministry center’s outreach and Hardy’s hiring, Grueser noted other evidences of Valley Park’s racial reconciliation efforts.
The church hosted a block party last summer that saw 27 people make professions of faith.
In addition, Grueser said, Valley Park is the only Southern Baptist church in Montgomery with an in-school tutoring program. Volunteers from the church make weekly visits to a predominantly black elementary school to assist students.
Grueser said the church is breaking new ground and he is patiently waiting to see if its methods prove successful.
“There are no models to go by,” he said. “I can’t go to the bookstore and buy a book on [race relations].”
Hardy, too, expressed his belief that Valley Park is in the middle of God’s will by working to unite the races.
“I believe God is pouring out his love to people with a burden for racial reconciliation,” Hardy said, adding that the congregation’s “overwhelming response to me” is evidence of that.
The church currently runs an average 30 percent African American attendance every Sunday. And while there have been minor obstacles — such as settling on a style of worship that is comfortable to everyone — youth minister Burkett believes they are more a result of change than of racial prejudice.
“The problems we’ve had go along with growth,” he explained. “As we move forward, there’s always going to be that unstable feeling.”
Grueser, too, knows there will always be impediments to progress. But the signs of God’s approval — such as Hardy’s arrival — are overwhelming.
“God keeps affirming that we’re right on track,” he said.

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  • Jason Skinner