By Karen Willoughby, Managing Editor
SICILY ISLAND, CROWLEY, MONROE/WEST MONROE, CALHOUN – In his famous “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his hope that one day character would matter more than ethnicity. Some have been content to simply wait for the Civil Rights leader’s vision to materialize.
There are pastors in Louisiana, however, who have decided to do something to make Kings’s dream a reality.
“This area has been controversial between races over the years,” said James Gass, pastor for the last three years at First Baptist Church of Sicily Island, in Ouachita Baptist Association. “My hope was that if nothing else, this crusade would bring us together on common ground, and I believe it did.”
This spring, churches and groups of churches across Louisiana worked together to bring racial and community reconciliation.
This article looks at four of those events.
About 500 people – 55 percent black – live in the village of Sicily Island. Perhaps 98 percent of the people who live in the 100 or more homes nearby – around the recreational Lake Louis – remain unchurched, Gass said.
He has worked hard over the last three years to become part of the community, because that’s what’s required for positive change to take place, the pastor said.
“It’s real easy to focus on your small part of the community, but if we work together as a whole, we have a better chance of changing our community,” Gass continued. “Changing the culture regarding drugs, alcohol, sex outside of marriage – no church can do it alone. That’s been our purpose, to unite the community so we can better address these issues.”
Headliners for Sicily Island’s mid-April crusade included Fred Luter, nationally-known black pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and Bill Robertson, Louisiana Baptist Convention’s pastoral ministries director, who is white.
“We started out two or three months before the crusade, putting out flyers, visiting people in the outlying area,” Gass said. “Our hope was we would reach a large portion of the lost in our area, but instead of that, we had a larger turnout from our local churches.
“We didn’t change the plan; God did,” Gass continued. “It became a time of genuine community reconciliation. We had Methodist, Pentecostal, nondenominational, a handful of Churches of Christ, and some of our African American – mostly Baptist – churches.”
Gass credited Eric Price, pastor of two black Baptist churches in the area, for adding to the spirit of reconciliation.
“I brought him in three or four months before the crusade,” Gass said. “We were trying as much as possible to reach across boundaries.”
Price said he wanted to be part of bringing the community together.
“If we look at differences, they may be small or great,” Price said. “When you allow the Word to come forth, it allows everyone who hears the Word to realize we have more in common than is different. …
“The Word was right there in the neighborhood,” Price said. “You saw people of different races, different denominations fellowshipping together, worshipping together. I think that made it a success.”
An ongoing men’s fellowship started as a result of the community crusade, and pastors of different races have been preaching in each other’s pulpits, Price said. “The door’s still open for us to do more in the future.”
The crusade changed the atmosphere, Gass said.
“In Sicily Island, the churches usually tend to do their own thing,” the pastor explained. “Not this time. We saw denominations come together and races come together. I think it was fantastic.”
About 80 people worship each Sunday at First Baptist Sicily Island.
After a year’s preparation for what was named the Acadiana Festival of Life, at least 463 people made spiritual decisions at the March 14-17 city-wide crusade that took place at the Acadia Rice Arena, “which is basically a covered livestock show facility that had bleachers to seat 1,500,” said Roger Tarver, pastor for the last eight years of First Baptist Church of Crowley. “Another 1,500 chairs were set up in the arena to allow for 3,000 people to sit.”
Nearly 50 churches from several denominations and ethnicities in the land of Cajun prairies were involved, including Catholic. “The biggest Catholic church in Crowley had an announcement in their bulletin about it, even though they had something going on at the same time,” Tarver said. Crowley, with a population of about 15,000, is about 68 percent white.
“We’re trying to open and keep open doors for ministry without racial barriers,” Tarver said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been praying for: ‘Lord, forgive us for building barriers that separate your children, and if possible, use me to help overcome those.’”
The community crusade started with the prayertimes shared between Tarver and Loyd Singly of Northside Assembly of God. Those prayers often included revival for Crowley and one Friday morning in early 2009, Singly said it was time. He suggested the guest speaker should be Jay Lowder, a Southern Baptist from Texas.
“I am convinced that Jay is anointed of God to be a harvester for His kingdom,” Tarver said after the city-wide revival. “His background, conversion, and message speak to the teens in powerful ways. Us older folks as well were impacted. A 73-year-old friend was one of the many adults who professed Jesus as Savior and Lord, along with many teens and children.”
Pre-event rallies took place at area schools, with Jay Lowder, Rick Stanley and Chad Revelle speaking at middle and high schools; Hank Hough and Kingdom Dog Ministries spoke/performed at elementary schools. Two prayer breakfasts the week before the crusade were well-attended by a cross-section of the community, the pastor said.
Perhaps 4,000 people were present for youth night, when a car, registered dog, several laptop computers, cell phones and Ipods were given away. Jason Crabb was music evangelist each night.
“It was a great event for our area and Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries was used of the Lord in a mighty way here,” Tarver said. “We continue to be blessed by some of the residuals.
People who were saved are now active in churches, extending their new faith to the people around them.”
A multi-denominational men’s prayer breakfast has started, the pastor added.
“It was and continues to be a blessing as we seek God’s enabling to see the new believers become mature disciples,” Tarver said. “We are also praying and working to see some ‘not new’ believers maturing.”
About 175 people participate in Sunday morning worship at First Crowley.
A “community transformation event” took place Thursday, May 6, at the Monroe Civic Center that drew about 3,000 people.
“We’re breaking down the barriers of race, religion and the river,” said Rece Tucker, pastor for the last six years of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Calhoun. “If anything can bring us together, it should be worship – because we worship the same God. That means we have the same daddy; that’s the way I look at it.”
Northeast Louisiana and Morehouse Director of Missions Jerry Price credits John Avant, pastor at First Baptist Church of West Monroe, with spearheading the drive toward “overarching community transformation” in the two cities that cling to opposite banks of the Ouachita River. Avant works with Christian leaders of several denominations in Monroe and West Monroe.
Price credits Greg Clark, pastor of Cedar Crest Baptist Church in West Monroe, for getting Southern Baptist churches involved in the effort that was produced by the multi-denominational “Community Prayer Partners,” a group in existence for at least the last 15 years.
At least 20 of the perhaps 80 preachers there, spoke at the event that started at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday in May, which included a mass choir from several churches and a special appearance by Mandesa, of American Idol fame.
“What we’re discovering as pastors is that our people know each other, from school, work, wherever,” Tucker said. “So here we are, in churches right around the corner from each other, asking, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this, worshipping together?’”
The purpose of the event was to get area pastors to commit to lead their congregations to community transformation, Clark said.
“We in the Christian community are responsible for reaching out beyond ourselves for community transformation through economic, cultural and spiritual change that transcends the barriers of the past, which in our case are race, religion and the river,” Clark said.
Because of Community Prayer Partners long and consistent history, relationships have been established and trust has been built, the pastor said.
“There’s a climate here. Our greatest need is for God to breathe on us and send revival,” Clark said. “All else flows from that. … We believe the things we’re seeing are indicative of the fact that we’re in great need of revival. The process of that will be transformational. We become agents of change for Him.”
God could bring revival to one church, acting alone, Clark said, but “we believe God’s call is to His people as a whole. ‘If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land,’” he quoted from 2 Chronicles 7:14. “That’s not talking about just Baptists, or just one group of people. It’s all His people, together. It’s when people work together for God’s purposes that transformational change happens.”
Next for the Monroe/West Monroe area: a community-wide Fresh Encounter weekend Nov. 19-21, to be led by Henry Blackaby and his son, Richard Blackaby.
Pastors from the black Jerusalem Baptist and the white Liberty Baptist and First Baptist returned from the May 6 event with a resolve to evoke transformational change in Calhoun, 15 miles west of West Monroe.
May 22 was declared by the three men to be Calhoun Evangelistic Day. They formed 10, four-person teams – two black and two white on each team – and saturated Calhoun with flyers and tracts and sharing Christ.
“That went over great,” Tucker said. “If we are going to win Calhoun, we can’t win it as one church. Hopefully when people saw the teams on their doorsteps, it sent a message and these barriers will come down.”
White pastors have said to him that black families have come to the church, but didn’t stay, Tucker said.
“I ask them, ‘What did your church do to make them feel welcome? I know you said they were welcome, but our culture, our upbringing is totally different. If you want to make me welcome in your home, you’ve got to make me feel comfortable.”
Tucker said whites are among his congregation. He quickly gets them involved in the life of the church, which helps them to feel comfortable.
In the black church, Tucker continued, the congregation usually follows the lead of the pastor. That doesn’t mean they always like it.
“Everybody is not in agreement. You still have those who grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s,” Tucker said. “I have some members in my church who don’t go with it, but they don’t fight against it.”
He’s talked with white pastors who have the same experience with some members of their congregations, Tucker said, but pastors who remain committed to reconciliation come to find their churches are stronger for it.
“When you determine to do the right thing, God will put the right people in your path,” Tucker said. “People change, but they do it one step at a time.”