Prayer walk for racial peace unites community

At the end of an ecumenical “Prayer Walk for Racial Peace,” organizers and some marchers are shown under one of the rainbows that came out at the end of the march. Photo courtesy of Michael Beck
At the end of an ecumenical “Prayer Walk for Racial Peace,” organizers and some marchers are shown under one of the rainbows that came out at the end of the march. Photo courtesy of Michael Beck

For the past four years, as pastor of Wildwood United Methodist Church and Oxford United Methodist Church, I have been developing relationships with the African-American leaders in our community.

Wildwood also has been on the cutting edge of the Fresh Expressions movement, which fosters work among Christians of various denominations.

After a recent homicide on Jackson Street in Wildwood and racial tension across the nation, our Fresh Expressions committee, which includes members from four local churches, was praying and asking God what we could do to bring our community together.

I contacted Eric Wilkins, pastor of Remnant Fellowship Worship Center in Wildwood, who had held a gathering to pray for the healing of our city.

We agreed that Jesus didn’t wait back at the synagogue — he went to where the people were experiencing crisis and met their need. We agreed prayer must be combined with decisive action.

We reached out to more clergy friends and created the Wildwood Clergy Coalition, a multi-racial group of church leaders focused specifically on creating systemic kingdom change in our community. 

We decided to bring our congregations together to in a display of unity and love that we called the “Prayer Walk for Racial Peace.”

We invited local law enforcement and elected leadership to be part of the event. I also invited my friend Sheila Raye Charles, the daughter of legendary entertainer Ray Charles, to come and lead us in song as we marched.

I firmly believe, if young men are being murdered in Wildwood and across the country, it’s not just a problem for the African-American community, it’s a problem for the human community.

Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Neither can a divided community or nation stand; it will inevitably fall.

We needed to stand together. We couldn’t simply sit back and wait for this to get better. That was not the way of Jesus. He prayed, but then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

The issue seemed to resonate deeply with people, as the coalition expanded to include 18 churches, several of them United Methodist.

The day of the walk

The July 24 Prayer Walk for Racial Peace was a massive kingdom success on many levels.

As soon as we began to gather on the front lawn of Wildwood City Hall, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Something powerful was about to happen.

Hundreds of people of different races and diverse traditions began showing up, some of them in church buses. Law enforcement officers gathered with us.

Before long, there was a sea of people. Their faces were a mixture of apprehension and joy, but their eyes were full of hope. 

We began by asking everyone to find someone of a different race that they didn’t know, hug them, love on them and exchange contact information. We urged them to follow up with each other the next day. The crowd erupted in joy. Folks showed up with cupcakes, and the event turned into a love fest.

The Wildwood Clergy Coalition chose community leaders representing different "tribes" to speak to the crowd. With the task of speaking on the purpose for our meeting looming before me, my smallness and utter dependence on God suddenly became extraordinarily real. 

I felt compelled to share some scripture, as well as some pieces from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The opportunity to live into the dream in our community was in our hands, and the time was now.

We invited Deputy Chief of Police Paul Valentino to offer the perspective of law enforcement and the tough job they have to protect and serve, as well as their desire to have racial peace. Wildwood City Commissioner Robbie Strickland also shared his hope for our community.

Sheila Charles led us in song. We hugged, wept, prayed, heard from community leaders and shared cupcakes. We laid praying hands on our police force and community leaders.

We walked in prayer from city hall down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hundreds of people marching together, singing, laughing, holding hands.

We stopped our procession on the corner of Jackson Street. There, at a community center in the epicenter of violence and drug activity, we essentially repeated what we did at the start of our walk. More and more people began to join us from the neighborhood.

To see law enforcement and community alike lay aside our differences and pray for and with each other was significant. I have never witnessed such a tangible moment of healing and reconciliation among a crowd. Neighbors praying over the officers they once saw as the enemy. Officers embracing people they had probably arrested a time or two. That was the kingdom of heaven breaking into Wildwood.

Then God did something special for us. From the makeshift stage of a trailer bed, a huge rainbow appeared over our gathering. An eruption of cheers, joyful applause, hugging and weeping ensued. The day concluded with the brightest double rainbow most of us had ever seen, a sign of God's covenantal promise of a new beginning.

There was no violence. There was no protest. Nothing controversial, except the controversial love that we shared.

This movement has changed our city. If this happened in every city, it would change our nation.

Moving forward

The good news is that the gathering was only the beginning. We community leaders are continuing to meet to discuss what’s next.

The vision God has given us is that we will gather together monthly at various church buildings to be the greater church. We will worship together, fellowship together, learn together. And, yes, we will march again, but the prayer walk is now only an outward expression of inner change God has accomplished in our hearts.

We also believe we can help other communities replicate what we did. We think we have a model, so to speak, that we want to share with other communities, asking only that they will in turn expand the reconciliation movement themselves!

Beck is pastor of two United Methodist churches in Florida. 

Media contact: Vicki Brown at 615-742-5400 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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