Within thirty minutes of the church doors opening on November 13, 2018, 300 worshipers filled every seat in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC for the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s (SCBC) Annual Meeting Night of Worship. Outside, ushers directed 400 additional people to watch the service in overflow at Citadel Baptist Church. The air thick in anticipation, the pastors who gathered for prayer in the basement prior to the service emerged from a staircase in the front of the sanctuary and took their seats behind the pulpit. Led by Marshall Blalock, president of the SCBC and senior pastor of First Baptist Church (FBC) Charleston, and Rev. Eric Manning of Emanuel AME, the night was a tangible demonstration of unity in a city once ravaged by racial violence. These men were prepared to lead an interdenominational, multi-ethnic worship service historic in nature due to its substance and location. Dr. Walter Strickland, associate vice president of Kingdom Diversity Initiatives, was among them as he delivered a sermon in accordance with the theme “Building Bridges.” The imagery, reflective of Charleston’s iconic Cooper River Bridge, symbolized the vision for the night—building relationships across lines of difference.
Mother Emanuel AME is the oldest independent Black church south of Baltimore and the location of the tragic mass murder where nine souls lost their lives on June 16, 2015. But on this night, the hate that dared taint Emanuel’s history was rolled back with a full display of Christ’s forgiveness, love and humility through a multi-ethnic worship service. Dr. Strickland’s sermon perfectly captured the heart of the evening and the essence of the Kingdom Diversity Initiative (KDI).
Around Southeastern, people often ask, “what does Kingdom Diversity do?” As an initiative of the President at Southeastern Seminary and College at Southeastern, Dr. Strickland leads a team who strategically works within the DNA of Southeastern, behind the scenes yet impacting every student, system and structure on campus. Kingdom Diversity vision is to “equip students from every corner of the Kingdom to serve in every context of the Kingdom.” Rooted in the Revelation 7:9- 10 vision of every nation, tribe and tongue worshiping our Savior on the throne, Kingdom Diversity pursues this reality to help the campus represent the diverse vision to come.
Dr. Strickland used the very text which inspired the KDI to demonstrate that corporate worship builds bridges across lines of difference and personal sanctification is the motivation. When believers with different worship styles come together not only can they learn from each other, but the diversity forces them to be more like Jesus. Delineating worship styles, Dr. Strickland explained expressive, demonstrative worshipers testify outwardly to God’s character and provision in life while subdued, cerebral worshipers highlight the cognitive reverence in knowing God. Both styles offer the church body ways to worship in mind, body and soul. In these bridge building encounters where differences merge for the unity of worship, believers can follow Christ’s example of humility: count others before oneself and bear another’s burdens even when those burdens are unfamiliar.
The atmosphere within the service mirrored Dr. Strickland’s message describing diverse Kingdom worship and unity that exists around the throne of Christ. Strickland’s expressive preaching style in line with the African American tradition elicited the kind of call and responses from what could be considered a more subdued congregation. Dr. Ronnie Flyod shared how Christ’s love compels believers to be known by the love for others. Rev. Anthony Thompson, a widower of one of the victims, gave his powerful testimony of experiencing supernatural forgiveness in the face of great loss. A joint choir from Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church and First Baptist Church Charleston provided both expressive and subdued worship hymns and anthems blending different worship styles.
Blalock said the two choirs could not have been more “polar opposite.” “But it was the oneness of the Gospel, the oneness of our Savior, that enabled both of those two worship styles to love and appreciate each other and to join the other in their space.” Between the time of prayer that took place before the service, the sermons and the worship music, “It felt like God blessed us with a glimpse of heaven,” Blalock said, giving voice to the vision that had since become a reality.
Rev. Manning echoed Blalock’s sentiments expressing gratitude for being a part of such a historic night, “We thank God for even allowing us to be a part to see real ministry at work as the spirit of the Lord continues to change hearts and bring us to a season of reconciliation.” Manning was hopeful that this night would not only bring a revival but heart change throughout the country as well.
The work done in behind the scenes in believers’ hearts manifests with actions like building new relationships which leads to new experiences. John Tinnell and his wife traveled from Mt. Pleasant, SC to participate in the worship service. They are a seasoned couple who would have known American life in days where a service like this one would not have been permitted. “I’ve never experienced any such interracial worship,” Tinnell said as he reflected on the night. For him, Rev. Thompson’s gripping story of forgiveness, Dr. Floyd’s message of love and Dr. Strickland’s call for worshipers to learn from one other were highlights of the service. Chris Blalock, Marshall Blalock’s son, described the night as “the Gospel on display.” Whether young or old, local worshipers or out of town worshipers, black or white, people’s hearts became the foundation for building together.
One night of worship was not to be the end of Blalock’s and Manning’s vision. After the service, young leaders in the SCBC gleaned wisdom from a panel on how to do bridge building work in their communities. Dr. Strickland participated in the panel as well sharing how Southeastern is achieving not only ethnic and gender diversity, but diversity within the curriculum as well.
Blalock is hopeful for relationships going forward as the SCBC and the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina are creating an “unprecedented relationship” to accomplish work together. “I’m hoping people catch a heart for this. We can’t pass a resolution and solve this. This is from individual people to build individual relationships and the gap is covered,” Blalock said. This work requires humility. Blalock echoed Dr. Strickland’s sermon point on imitating Christ’s humility acknowledging that humility will help pastor’s listen to others, learn from others and ultimately help see people differently.
Kingdom diversity at work is the body of believers humbly worshiping Christ with one another. This historic night was evidence that pastors and worshipers alike are making progress building relationships and building bridges.