During a time when reports of racial conflict have peppered the national news, a recent men’s retreat brought black and white Christians together.
Men from Tabernacle Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation, met with men from mostly white First Presbyterian Church. The event marked another expansion of fellowship between the two Augusta, Georgia congregations, and Erskine Theological Seminary (ETS) has played a role in that growing relationship.
First Presbyterian Church (whose pastor, Dr. George Robertson, has served as an adjunct professor at ETS) hosts the ETS extension site in Augusta.
“Erskine has had a unifying presence in our town as it equips pastors from different backgrounds, denominations, and races,” ETS graduate John Barrett said. “We are looking forward to seeing how the Lord will use these relationships and Erskine in our community.”
Barrett, now associate pastor of discipleship at First Presbyterian, became friends early last year with Minister Toney Cross of Tabernacle Baptist, who organized the retreat. A current ETS student from Tabernacle Baptist, the recently ordained Dr. Terence Vandiver, invited Dr. Mark Ross of ETS to deliver the closing address at the event.
“I think the story begins in March 2014 when I first met Toney during a community-wide work project,” Barrett said. “We all gathered to eat lunch and I met Toney and the men from Tabernacle Baptist there. Later that year, we led another joint project in the community.”
First Presbyterian had scheduled a small men’s retreat for May 2014, and Barrett invited Cross, who brought with him not only a dozen men from Tabernacle Baptist but also “a promise to invite us to their retreat in November.”
Ministry projects undertaken together in the community paved the way for more partnership between the congregations, Vandiver explained. “Our leadership saw an opportunity to make our retreat more representative of ‘the’ church as opposed to ‘our’ church and to create an atmosphere of unity, worship, and growth around our common Savior.”
Cross described the November retreat at Tabernacle Baptist, entitled “Fearless,” as aimed at helping the men become fearless concerning the enemy, fearless concerning themselves and what they can achieve, and fearless concerning race relations and working together to effect change.
“I believe with the recent issues that have been plaguing our community, working together now is most important,” Cross said. “Dr. Ross did a phenomenal job galvanizing all participating men with what I think was a most thought-provoking word, but also a challenge of self-examination, both personally and racially.”
Vandiver, who also spoke at the retreat, said Ross challenged the men “to be a better, more fearless version of ourselves as we seek to advance the kingdom of God through the spread of the Gospel.”
In his own presentation, he said, “I had the opportunity to encourage the attendees to understand the difference between fear that paralyzes and fear that causes us to reverently pause to consider Christ in critical moments of life.”
Ross sees the retreat as part of a series of activities with significance for the two congregations and beyond. “Given all that has been in the news lately with Ferguson, Missouri, etc., it is noteworthy that there are efforts at bridging the racial divide that are going on in Augusta, and that Erskine has a part to play in this effort.”
Cross noted that the men’s ministry of Tabernacle Church is called “the Bridge Builders,” and he is enthusiastic about plans he and Barrett are making. “This recent retreat, I believe, has birthed that bridge-building process,” he said.
“It shows our community that if local churches, both white and black, can fellowship, have a genuine understanding of each other, and work together, then honestly, our nation can learn from this effort and do the same,” he said.
“The church should lead the way.”