By Father Taylor Ishii and Photos by Kate Reali
“The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” – Martin Luther King Jr., March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Like many great things in the South, it started with a chicken sandwich, sweet tea, and heartfelt conversation. Bishop Manuel Watson, a black man, and Pastor Wayne Anderson, a white man, felt compelled to get together at the Spanish Fort Chick-fil-A and talk about the state of our country in the summer of 2016.
In the wake of the high-profile shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Philandro Castile, as well as the national political discourse, racial tensions in the country were high. And in the midst of grief, anger, and confusion that seemed to captivate many, both men realized things weren’t going to change without Christians setting the example of peace across racial boundaries.
And thus Path to Peace was born. It came from the recognition that much of this rhetoric was polarizing because we had forgotten our common humanity. As a distinctly Christian organization, Path to Peace seeks to remind the community that each and every person is a beloved child of God and that racist attitudes, actions, and systemic injustice are an affront to this truth.
What’s significant about Path to Peace is that it is an intentional partnership between majority black and white congregations and members. The oft-quoted statement that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning remains true. Unfortunately, the church has often been a barrier rather than a bridge. Path to Peace wanted to challenge that kind of thinking.
In speaking with Bishop Watson, he said that the goal was to “bring unity among the churches and bring them together to fight racism. A lot of folks don’t realize that there’s work to be done outside the walls of the church, in the streets.” For members of the church to reach into their community and model love across racial lines was a significant motivating factor in changing the paradigm for how to relate with people different from themselves.
Echoing this sentiment, Pastor Anderson made it clear where these convictions come from. “Jesus prayed in John chapter 17 that his people, the church, would be one as he and the Father are one. We believe that oneness transcends racial boundaries and our unity is a sign to the world of God’s love for all humanity.”
Path to Peace has had several community-wide worship services with shared ministry among black and white pastors. And while Path’s leadership has been grateful that many want to gather to worship and pray, they believe the real work of healing racial divisions happens in small groups outside these larger events. They’ve recently shifted strategy towards potluck events where people have more time in fellowship, sharing food, and conversation.
I asked Pastor Henry Crawford of Good Samaritan Sanctuary what he thought the impact of Path to Peace was; he replied when he was “part of ACT II working on issues in the community, when the issues were resolved, we stopped seeing each other. But Path to Peace’s focus on relationships has kept us together. For us to love each other and come together and embrace differences, it’s pleasing to God.”
Both Pastor Crawford and his wife, Richadean, are actively involved in what Path to Peace calls Connect Groups, opportunities for people to build relationships with people who look different from them that might not be part of the generally homogenous circles we are apt to associate in. Some of these groups are built around common interests like art and exercise, while others are spaces to have more direct conversations about race.
The best example of a Connect Group is the Path to Peace Choir. One member commented: “It can be easy to feel isolated, but the choir is a place for me to come together with others who love to sing. I’ve made really special friendships here.” The Choir has been invited to sing at many Eastern Shore events, including Fairhope’s Art Walk, to rave reviews. However, it’s not the music alone that leaves an impact, but black and white Christians swaying and singing praise in unity.
Part of what makes these groups work is that members feel the safety to begin to bring their whole stories to bear, as well as getting to know others with a whole different set of life experiences. And the truth is that people leave these groups changed, perhaps having stereotypes and prejudice challenged in the gift of friendship.
Path to Peace is clear that this is not easy work; it may take a generation to truly see significant change in the community. Yet, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King which began the article ring all the more true. Over 50 years on from this statement on the march from Selma to Montgomery, there are others who continue to carry that torch in Alabama.