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Reconciliation continues in Montgomery

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Pastor Jay Wolf was walking across a parking lot of a local store when a young black man fell in stride beside him.

Simultaneously, each noticed the matching black and white wristband the other was wearing.

“Our eyes met and we smiled the smile of recognition and brotherhood. Then we clasped hands,” Wolf said. “It was as if we had an instant connection as brothers in Christ.”

Wolf, pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., has been wearing that wristband for more than a year. Technically he could have taken it off weeks ago and still been politically correct.

But then, he said, he would miss moments like this one.

“Racial reconciliation is not something you can collect data on, but there is anecdotal evidence like this that God is at work in Montgomery, in Alabama and in the world,” he said.

Wolf’s predominantly white congregation joined forces with a local black church, Fresh Anointing International Church, in December 2005 to launch the ONE Movement, a citywide emphasis on racial unity. The movement, ushered in with the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and symbolized by the armbands, was set to last 381 days just as the boycott did.

The days ticked by. Milestones were achieved. But the 381-day mark came and went without fanfare -— or even a closing ceremony.

But Wolf smiles when he notes that, no, it wasn’t an oversight on their part. “Reconciliation is not for a season -— it’s a lifestyle. Our objective is to usher in a revival. The ONE Movement is not ending here.”

Many of the movement’s 6,000 signature black and white wooden crosses still proclaim John 17:21 from the yards of homes and businesses across Montgomery.

And Wolf’s story is proof that a number of the 25,000 wristbands are still in use.

“A number of people are still trumpeting the ONE Movement through the physical symbols of it, not to mention new relationships and attitudes that have been formed,” said Kyle Searcy, pastor of Fresh Anointing International Church. “If you ask someone else, they may feel like we’ve got a long way to go. But I just don’t run into the kind of stuff that people talk about that has existed in the hearts of people [in the past]. I think hearts are open here.”

Over the past months, Searcy said he’s heard of more joint meetings and pulpit exchanges between black and white congregations than ever before.

And, he noted, five or six months into the movement, an issue with the school board that could have been a “large racial incident” fizzled out uncharacteristically peacefully.

“God’s been doing a lot of things over the years to change things in Montgomery, and I’m not holding the ONE Movement totally responsible for that,” Searcy said. “But I will say the walls are coming down quickly all of a sudden.”

Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright wholeheartedly agreed.

“The campaign bridged racial, socio-economic and geographical divides. It embraced our diversity instead of focusing on the differences that can separate us. It spoke to the commonalities that can bring us together,” said Bright, a First Baptist member.

And it’s not just heralding those things in Montgomery, Wolf noted. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has done coverage of the campaign, and several cities across the United States are considering modeling movements after it.

A representative from the Bill Gates Foundation also contacted Wolf and Searcy about the possibility of a grant, noting that the churches were identified by a Harvard University study as two of 400 churches in the United States “making significant community impacts and facilitating racial reconciliation,” Wolf said.

“The city has a very unique place in world history, and we feel like God is doing something extraordinary on that unique stage,” Wolf said. “Our prayer is that Montgomery, a place known in the past for division, will become known in the future as a model for racial reconciliation and spiritual awakening.”

The next shift toward that, according to local church leaders, is to give reconciliation a physical address there in the city. At a lunch gathering March 27, a crowd representing 30 or 40 local congregations embraced the news that the Montgomery House of Prayer will open its doors in the coming days in a now-vacant building, with several months’ rent already donated.

The ministry will start with short shifts and eventually build up to a 24-hour-a-day prayer ministry involving local evangelical congregations of all stripes. The concept will be modeled after similar facilities in Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo.

“We felt like that was the next logical step, to have somewhere where churches could come together and take shifts … to see God change our city and bless our city,” Searcy said.

It’s a continuation of what Wolf said he feels is already happening, though it’s difficult to identify benchmarks for proving it.

“How do you know when reconciliation has been achieved? When all churches in Alabama are half and half?” he asked. “That’s not it.”

Culture plays a role in church attendance, Wolf said, so people may attend churches more because of their “speed of pitch” rather than their race. So rather than a measurable demographic shift, reconciliation is an attitude, he explained — a feeling that when a person walks into a church regardless of age or stage, they are welcome.

“One of the key elements to ignite massive spiritual awakening is unity. When the world sees unity in the body of Christ, it enhances our witness,” Wolf said. “Because of this, we Christians need to be at the forefront of racial reconciliation.”