Originally created 03/27/04

Churches are sanctuaries of racial harmony



New Creation Christian Church had friends and relatives up on their feet in the sanctuary of Hillcrest Baptist Church when New Creation celebrated its first anniversary in March.

The black congregation had started sharing facilities with predominantly white Hillcrest about a month before.

The two congregations usually hold Sunday services simultaneously, with New Creation meeting in the fellowship hall and Hillcrest in the sanctuary. Anniversaries in black churches, though, are usually celebrated outside of regular service times, such as Sunday afternoons, so the sanctuary was available.

"It has been interesting. We are learning from each other," said the Rev. Gordon Robinson, the pastor of the 250-member Hillcrest.

His south Augusta church had tried for years to reach the black community. Response was good for some programs, such as summer camp and vacation Bible school, and the 30-year-old Hillcrest Baptist School's enrollment of about 210 children was about 70 percent black.

When it came to worship services, however, few blacks came, and those who did, didn't stay.

"We couldn't break through the (cultural) barrier," Dr. Robinson said.

The 27-member New Creation is likely the first black congregation in Augusta affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the Rev. Ben Lang, of Lithonia Springs, Ga., the African-American consultant for church development for the Georgia state convention.

The Southern Baptist Convention started in Augusta in 1845. Southern churches formed a new affiliation after their abolition-minded counterparts in the North rejected a slaveholder for a missionary appointment.

In time, "blacks felt the need to start their own conventions," the Rev. Lang said. "That was a natural thing that happened, given the times."

There's little difference theologically between groups such as the predominantly black National Baptists and the predominately white Southern Baptists.

"It is more of a racial-cultural difference," he said.

In 2002, the Rev. Kenneth Clay, a member of Greater Young Zion Baptist Church and a licensed minister, felt the call to plant a new church.

"I did not have any clue. I only knew what God said," so he got on an Internet search engine and typed in "church plant," and the Georgia Baptist Convention popped up, he said.

From there, he found a link to the Rev. Lang, who leads Cornerstone Baptist Church in Lithonia Springs, another predominantly black Southern Baptist congregation.

After e-mails and phone conversations, the Rev. Lang invited the Rev. Clay and his wife, Sonya, to Atlanta.

The Rev. Lang was very interested in planting a black church in Augusta.

"This is where the Southern Baptist Convention had started. They thought it was awesome that I wanted to do this," the Rev. Clay said.

He was assessed to see whether he could plant a church. He was accepted.

Because he had already gone through ministerial training in his previous church, he did not have to go to seminary before his ordination in December 2002.

New Creation is one of about 30 black congregations the Georgia state convention has started in the past five years, the Rev. Lang said. In Georgia, about 125 out of some 3,400 Southern Baptist churches have black leadership and an estimated 80 to 100 percent black membership, the Rev. Lang said.

The Rev. Clay's congregation first met at Copeland Elementary School, then moved to the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches office before going to Hillcrest.

New Creation and Hillcrest run Sunday school programs, Sunday services and Wednesday Bible studies side by side. They use the same nursery and come together now for Wednesday night suppers and plan to hold joint services occasionally.

New Creation also gets assistance from Warren Baptist Church and the Augusta Association.

"Our role is to assist them in establishing a church," Dr. Robinson said. Sharing facilities allows New Creation to preserve its culture and Hillcrest to reach the black community.

Hillcrest "would love to have a multi-ethnic congregation, representing all God's children. That would be the ideal," he said.

"It is more important that (people) be reached for Christ no matter where they go to church," said Dr. Robinson, who knows of churches of different cultures in other states that share facilities.

By building relationships and trust, and working together, the two congregations can bring "some reconciliation between the races," he said.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.