By Michael W. Pannell
Photography by Jessica Whitley
For 15 years, a now-retired Mercer University professor has lead a Macon effort promoting racial reconciliation. Called Building the Beloved Community, the work centers on a symposium at Mercer founded by John Marson Dunaway, professor emeritus of French and interdisciplinary studies.
According to Dunaway, the symposium and resulting programs have been guided by his faith in Jesus Christ and by a concept advanced by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. concerning reconciliation and “building the beloved community.”
“King didn’t originate the term,” Dunaway said, “but he spoke and wrote of it often and advanced it more than anyone. It was a guiding principle in his nonviolent work to end segregation and discrimination, obtain civil rights and establish racial harmony. In a 1957 speech, he said, ‘The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness.’ ”
The 15th annual Building the Beloved Community Symposium is Feb. 26-27. Gathering with local community and faith leaders, Mercer officials, students, and anyone interested in the work of racial reconciliation, Dunaway said the symposium brings national voices and ideas to Macon to help break barriers and build relationships across traditional racial divides.
While national and local speakers cover the whys and hows of reconciliation, many also echo Dunaway’s view that faith is crucial.
“My motivation and original vision for the symposium stems from the belief that Christ’s church should lead the way,” he said. “The church carries the needed message and resources of love and repentance, forgiveness and godly restitution from the heart. I’m not saying government and other organizations don’t have important roles, I’m saying it’s incumbent on the church to lead the way.”
That idea led to symposium offshoots such as the Paired Clergy Network and unity worship services.
“We realized the symposium wouldn’t have a sustainable impact unless ideas became practical,” Dunaway said. “We created breakfasts, allowing friendships to grow across racial lines and the Paired Clergy Network to link clergy for fellowship, pulpit exchanges, multi-congregational worship and community service. I guess the poster churches would be Macon’s two First Baptist churches.”
Dunaway said First Baptist Church of Macon and First Baptist Church of Christ, led respectively by the Revs. James Goolsby Jr. and Scott Dickison, have been active supporters of Building the Beloved Community and other reconciliation efforts. Especially poignant, he said, because prior to a Civil War-era split, the two congregations were one.
“They’ve done so many things,” Dunaway said. “They’ve participated in Paired Clergy, had congregational fellowship dinners and worship services, collaborated on community service projects such as tutoring programs – even shared Easter services and Easter egg hunts for children. Of course, we can’t take credit for what anyone does. It’s something God is doing in many ways.”
Dickison, pastor of the predominantly white First Baptist Church of Christ on High Place, said the relationship with First Baptist Church on New Street has been “nothing short of transformational.”
“James and I started talking,” he said. “We acknowledged our shared history and realized each congregation had carried wounds from it. Maybe we carried them in different ways, but they were there. Building the Beloved Community’s model of bringing pastors together inspired us to reach out and to realize we’re not alone in this work.”
While Dickison said the congregations celebrate the new relationship, they recognize the work of reconciliation is difficult.
“This is hard work when approached with integrity,” he said. “It’s complicated taking racial histories seriously and giving full appreciation to the dynamics, injustice and even atrocities involved. It requires being willing to meet them with confession, repentance and forgiveness. We need to celebrate shared potlucks, but our shared hope for the future is we engage in the hard parts collectively and within our own congregations. I certainly encourage that.”
“We need to celebrate shared potlucks, but our shared hope for the future is we engage the hard parts collectively and within our own congregations.” — Scott Dickison
Dunaway said that even with a religious approach, there is no glossing over of difficult issues.
“Everybody in Macon knows we have a painful racial history,” he said. “They know there are many divisions along racial lines because of it. We have to face these tough realities, not gloss over them, so we can heal and move past them together.”
The Rev. Jason McClendon, pastor of Community Church of God, said he became involved with Building the Beloved Community after moving to Macon and seeing problems caused by a deep racial divide. He said participants aren’t shy about addressing hard problems in the multi-racial setting.
“And we don’t leave it there,” he said. “We explore solutions. It gives a needed place for voices from all segments of the community to be heard and allows a narrative meaningful enough to make things happen.”
Long-time Macon pastor the Rev. Clifford Little of Greens Tabernacle Baptist Church is a Beloved Community committee member. He said he’s seen results.
“It’s played a part in bringing people together, people of different races, churches and experiences,” he said. “We hear a unifying message but still acknowledge each other’s views – and one another – with open hearts. That’s a blessing. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re willing to keep at it.”
Dunaway said results also are personal.
“The richness in all this is how good it is to purposefully build relationships, these friendships, across racial lines,” he said. “There’s treasure and richness we miss personally – and in our churches, in our culture – if we stay in our group and look past one another.”
This year’s symposium features Claudia May, associate professor and program director of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.
“She’s a very Bible-based, Evangelical and not-ashamed-of-Jesus speaker who has a gracious way of challenging and encouraging. She’s of African descent but not African-American, having been reared in the U.K. She also has a depth of experience in training toward spiritual growth. I think our theme will be about hearing what the spirit of God is saying to the church about race.”
Aside from attending the coming symposium, Dunaway has advice for those wanting to become more aware of – or involved in – issues of racial reconciliation.
“I’d have you ask yourself things I’ve been asked. Like, when was the last time you had coffee with someone of a different race? Or invited someone for a meal? Sharing life makes the difference,” he said. “And you should listen. Listen to them with humility and self-reflection. Ask yourself what you’re doing of goodwill to help others across racial lines prosper and do well. We can all take steps. It can happen.”