April 2018, Learning For Life

Churches Take First Step Towards Radical Healing

Churches take first steps towards racial healing

Pastor Gerrit Dawson of First Presbyterian Church and Adraine and Albert White of Abounding Love Ministries.

Two years ago, the city of Baton Rouge simmered with racial tension after Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by two white police officers. The shooting made national headlines and set off weeks of unrest. Barely a week later, Gavin Eugene Long ambushed and shot six police officers, killing three.

In this climate of fear and violence, pastors throughout the city were comforting their congregations and urging people to stand united rather than divided. But the hurt and anger flowed along racial lines, and finding common ground was easier said than done.

Pastors Gerrit Dawson and Albert White, already longtime friends, took a leap of faith and decided that racial healing had to start somewhere and it might as well start with them.

Dawson is the senior pastor at the mostly white First Presbyterian Church in downtown Baton Rouge. White is pastor at Abounding Love Ministries, a mostly black congregation in the northern part of the city. Their friendship had led them to partner with each other for vacation Bible schools, Habitat for Humanity projects, and Bible studies. But the two congregations had never really mixed with each other on a personal or social level. And that seemed like a logical next step.

Their first step was to identify congregants who were willing to participate. Then “matches” were made among black and white families, who took turns visiting each other’s homes, sharing meals, and getting to know one another. Those first meetings had their awkward moments, but many friendships have been formed and the feedback from both sides has been positive and encouraging.

“In the beginning, some people worried that they would be uncomfortable in someone else’s home or that they wouldn’t know what to talk about,” said Pastor Gerrit, “but in fact, once they engaged with each other, it was easy … because after all, both had Christ in common.”

They called their campaign 50 on 50 because they hoped to enlist 50 families from each church, but because of the smaller size of Abounding Love Ministries, 20 was a reasonable compromise. Looking back, says Pastor Albert, the project almost didn’t happen.

“For the announcement (and very first night) of the program, we invited the First Presbyterian group to our service at Abounding Love,” he said. “But that was the night the city started flooding so we had to cancel. Then our church flooded, and of course, the people at First Presbyterian came and helped us over the next few weeks. So we ended up developing relationships even before the program started.”

While the First Presbyterian volunteers were helping to restore the Abounding Love facility, Pastor Gerrit invited White’s congregation to the First Presbyterian services for the next few weeks. That invitation led to history in the making.

“My wife Adraine gave a sermon there,” Pastor Albert said. “It was the very first time an African-American woman had done so in that church. And I gave communion to the congregation along with their elders. That was another first.”

The home visits have expanded to include field trips, outings, and serious discussions. “We all got together and went to Donaldsonville to visit the River Road African-American Museum,” said Pastor Gerrit. “It was an amazing experience, and afterward, we went out to eat and had a heart-to-heart discussion about slavery and its impact on all of us, black and white, even today.”

“That trip was something that many of our white friends would never have done on their own,” said Pastor Albert. “But it was truly special to share an experience like that together.”

Today, the affection between the two pastors has flowed to their congregants, who have learned how to look beyond the color of each other’s skin and really see the person inside. Now, among the two churches, new friends ask about each other’s families, their health, their needs.

“We are all valuable,” said Pastor Albert. “We all have something to offer … and we are all so much alike. We just need to encourage each other to step outside of our comfort zones whenever we can.”

For more information about Abounding Love Ministries, go to aboundinginhim.org, or call (225) 356-4441. For more information about First Presbyterian Church, go to fpcbr.org, or call (225) 387-0617.

Faith Life, June 2016

A Dream of Unity

by Lisa Tramontana
Pollie Johnson became a pastor in 2003, and founded her own church, Resurrection Life Family Ministries.
Pollie Johnson became a pastor in 2003, and founded her own church, Resurrection Life Family Ministries.

Pollie B. Johnson is all about creating unity … across racial, ethnic and gender lines … specifically in the church. As pastor of Resurrection Life Family Ministries, she shares the message that a relationship with Christ can transcend pain, heal relationships, close denominational divides, and strengthen the community.

She knows about healing and unity. Trained as a nurse and family counselor, Johnson’s life has been a never-ending gift of service, volunteerism, leadership, time, talent and philanthropy. She hosted a radio show in the 1990s for teenagers in crisis who called in to get advice and support. She led Bible studies as part of her work with a prison ministry. She counseled drug abusers and alcoholics trying to break free of their addictions.

“I realized the Lord was calling me,” she said. “He was saying, ‘That’s enough now. You know what to do. It’s time for you to go out and preach the Gospel.’”

So Johnson stopped trying to bargain with God about her purpose and in 2003, accepted her call to pastor. She moved from church to church trying to find her fit, a journey that led her to start Resurrection Life Family Ministries.

As the leader of her own church, she believes that unity starts with families. “In our church, families worship together,” she said. “Our community worships together. We don’t have to all go to the same church or have the same background. It’s our love for Christ that matters.”

One program that has helped bring people together is the Churches United initiative, which started as a 6-week women’s study group based on the Lifeway DVD “How to Hear the Voice of God.” The program, which includes a Bible study and brunch, expanded to include men as well, and discussions had a profound effect on the participants.

“People were saved,” Johnson said. “It was very powerful.”

IMG_4101-2All adults and teens are invited to join the Churches United group, which holds monthly meetings at Resurrection Life Family Ministries, 722 N. Carrollton Avenue. The group is currently focusing on the film “The Grace Card” (see textbox), a Christian drama that demonstrates the opportunities we all have to heal wounds and rebuild relationships.

Johnson is a woman of achievement with degrees from Tuskegee University in Alabama and Louisiana State University here in Baton Rouge. She has earned a B.S. in nursing, and a M.A. in counseling. She specializes in couples, family and individual biblical counseling as a licensed marriage and family therapist. She has been married for 44 years to Samuel Johnson, a retired Air Force Major and Exxon engineer, who now leads Bible studies at their church. Together, they have raised three daughters.

“My vision for fostering unity is engaging Christians of every denomination, race, age and sex,” Johnson said. “It’s important that we come together and love one another. Jesus said, ‘All people will know we are real disciples as we love one another.’ This is the way to become one, as He prayed. I believe that when we unite, we are building the church without walls.”

For more information about Churches United or Resurrection Life Family Ministries, call (225) 925-8233 or (225) 205-1488.

The Grace Card

Released in 2011, “The Grace Card” stars Louis Gossett, Jr., Michael Higgenbottom and Michael Joiner. After Mac McDonald (Joiner) loses his young son in an accident, he is filled with bitterness and pain for the next 17 years. His anger at the world damages his relationships with family members, puts his marriage at risk, and destroys his faith. Mac’s rage also affects his work, and soon, his career as a police officer is threatened.

At one point, Mac is partnered with Sam Wright (Higgenbottom), a rising star on the police force who is also a part-time pastor and a family man. Sam feels called to be a minister like his grandfather, and only works as a police officer to help provide for his family. When he gets promoted to Sergeant, however, Sam starts to wonder if perhaps police work is his true calling.

Sam and Mac must join forces in order to do their jobs, but racial tensions between them and their own experiences make it seem nearly impossible. When a second family tragedy befalls Mac, it is Sam who teaches Mac about sacrifice, forgiveness, love and healing.