In Georgia County With History of Racial Violence, Christians Seek Unity

By Bobby Ross, Jr.
racial unity
Grace Chapel elder Richard Crowder speaks before leading a special prayer as elders from his congregation and Bouldercrest gather on stage. (Photo: Walker Kendrick)

Kelvin Teamer stood on the stage of the Grace Chapel Church of Christ in Cumming, Georgia and marveled at the crowd.

In this small town about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta, about 600 Christians — Black, White and Hispanic — filled the pews for a special unity service Sunday.

“It’s good to be in Forsyth County this morning!” proclaimed Teamer, evangelist for the Bouldercrest Church of Christ in Atlanta.

“Amen! Amen!” the crowd responded.

“Now there was a time not long ago,” the Black minister added, “when somebody who looked like me would never say anything like that. But God is having his way here today.”

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Teamer alluded to the ugly racial past of Forsyth County, which remained nearly all-White into the 1990s. Cumming, with a population of about 6,500, is the county seat.

A Forsyth County historical marker erected just last year — at the urging of a community remembrance project — recounts the 1912 lynching of Rob Edwards. The 24-year-old Black man was accused of raping and murdering a young White woman named Mae Crow.

forsyth county racial unity
A Forsyth County, Ga., historical marker details the 1912 lynching of a 24-year-old Black man named Rob Edwards. (Photo: Bobby Ross Jr.)

In the same case, two Black teens, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, were hanged after one-day trials. Bands of White “night riders” then launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror to drive out all 1,098 Black citizens of Forsyth County, according to the 2016 book “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips.

“If you read some of the history, you actually find out that it was people who were calling themselves Christians at times who were doing some of those things,” said Paul Huyghebaert, lead minister for the Grace Chapel church.

“We can’t undo that story. But what is the new story — the right story that we tell?” the White preacher added, as he and Teamer discussed the racial unity effort. “That is why this is so important.”

In 1987, a civil rights march drew thousands to Cumming and provoked a counterdemonstration by Ku Klux Klan members and their sympathizers.

National Guard troops and law enforcement officers kept the opposing groups separated, as the New York Times reported at the time.

Given Forsyth County’s history, Teamer said, “It’s mentally hard for a lot of (Black) folks to cross that county line.”

But, he told his fellow Christians, “Through a continued investment in each other, I believe we can build bridges where no bridges existed.”

‘It’s so long overdue’ 

Sunday’s event — dubbed “One Voice Atlanta” — marked the latest in a series of cooperative efforts between the Bouldercrest church, which is predominantly Black, and the Grace Chapel church, which is predominantly White.

Since the summer of 2021, the two congregations — plus a Hispanic group that meets at the Grace Chapel building — have organized periodic joint assemblies and worked together in an urban ministry serving the homeless.

At Sunday’s service, the diverse crowd sang “Blessed Assurance” in English and Spanish. Bouldercrest and Grace Chapel elders gathered on stage for a special prayer. 

Besides praising God together, members of both congregations enjoyed fellowship and treats. 

A long black banner, hung on a church hallway wall, featured the message “WITNESS” in tall white letters. Attendees used felt-tip markers to write favorite Scriptures and inspirational messages on the banner.

“God is amazing,” said Robin Taylor, a 50-year Bouldercrest member who drove 45 minutes to attend Sunday’s service. “It’s truly amazing that we can connect and be one family. … It’s so long overdue.”

‘This is not the norm’

Teamer and Huyghebaert are minister friends

Both in their 40s, they first connected not through their Atlanta-area churches but via the Renew Network, a multinational, multiethnic group of faith leaders.

As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on — and as racial tension in America intensified after the high-profile deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others — the preachers talked about the need to bring their congregations together.

“I’d say the entire context nationally that we were all witness to played a role in our desire to see a kingdom vision for unity take center stage,” Huyghebaert said. 

racial unity forsyth
The host team of the Grace Chapel Church of Christ, led by connections minister Jim Beasley, left, prays before Sunday’s service. (Photo: Bobby Ross Jr.)

In his sermon, Teamer focused on “oneness as a witness” for the world to see God’s people integrated. He emphasized Jesus’ call for unity in John 17:20-23.

“God is in this,” Teamer said of “One Voice Atlanta.” “The unfortunate thing is that this here, this is not the norm. … But this is very much the vision of King Jesus.”

Teamer pointed to the “great multitude from every nation” described in Revelation 7.

“We’ve got to learn to work together, appreciate differences and still walk in unity one with another,” he said. “We’ve got Republicans in here. We’ve got Democrats. We’ve got independents. We’ve got all kinds of political ideologies in here. 

“But let me tell you something: That doesn’t really matter. What really matters is the kingdom of God.”

Importance of intentionality

Growing up, Bouldercrest member Mindy Woodford said she heard about places where Black people such as herself “shouldn’t get pulled over — or you might not make it out.”

Forsyth County was one of them.

racial unity
Mindy Woodford (Courtesy Photo)

But Woodford has embraced the call to develop relationships with Grace Chapel members. She even visited the congregation one Sunday on her own and went out to lunch with fellow Christians she met in Bible class.

“When you take the initiative, that’s when you really grow in your own Christianity,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about — developing relationships, seeking to connect with others and connecting them with God.”

Cassie Shaver’s family moved to Cumming last year for her husband, Rob, to serve as Grace Chapel’s discipleship minister.

The Shavers have four children, including an adopted daughter who is biracial. They previously worked with a congregation in an ethnically diverse city in upstate New York.

“So it was a little different moving here,” said Cassie Shaver, who is White. “We kind of heard the history, so I think it was a little scary.

“So this is right up our alley,” she said of the unity effort. “It was very exciting to hear that there was an intentionality about it.”

Showing Jesus to the world

Washington Johnson is a retired U.S. Army major who works in health care. He moved to Forsyth County in 2010.

Johnson, who is Black, said another Black family already was worshiping at Grace Chapel when his family arrived. Now the church has seven or eight Black families. 

Like the church, fast-growing Forsyth County has become more diverse.

The population includes increasing proportions of Asian (18 percent), Hispanic (10 percent) and Black (5 percent) residentsU.S. Census data shows.

racial unity
Branddon Bailey, left, greets Washington Johnson at the unity event. (Photo: Bobby Ross Jr.)

“It’s still changing and evolving,” Johnson said of the county.

He has served as a Grace Chapel elder but is taking a sabbatical from that role. 

A vocal supporter of the racial unity effort, Johnson — like Teamer and Huyghebaert — cites a desire to build deeper relationships between the two congregations.

The collaboration, Johnson said, must move beyond special events to everyday life.

“There needs to be some way that we continue to move this forward in terms of our fellowship and embracing each other,” he said. “Maybe we need to get together to do a bowling event or go see a Braves game or something like that.”

The day before the unity service, Johnson joined fellow Christians from both churches in a downtown Atlanta prayer walk.

The group distributed food and supplies to the poor.

“We prayed and listened to the stories of people who are going through some things right now,” he said. “So it’s been a wonderful blessing … hearing some of the things that they’re dealing with and overcoming.”

Equally important, Christians of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds working together to serve God send a clear message, Teamer said in his sermon.

“Jesus offers a huge promise,” the preacher said. “If we’re one, the world will see that Jesus is real. The world will see that Jesus was sent by God. 

“Now isn’t that what we’re supposed to be about?”

This story was originally published by The Christian Chronicle.

Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.

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5 thoughts on “In Georgia County With History of Racial Violence, Christians Seek Unity”

  1. Amen. As someone who likes to roadtrip across various states with my girlfriends at least once a year, I can say Forsyth county is on my list of “sundown” areas, where I was taught to NEVER be caught at night as a Black woman. Makes me anxious just thinking about it.
    I am very pleased to see things moving forward, and will remain prayerful. I can’t say if I’ll be comfortable staying overnight there anytime soon, but on my next roadtrip, I’d love to stop and fellowship with these believers.

  2. Marin, thanks for sharing your story as a Black woman. White believers, especially those like myself who don’t have such experiences, need to learn about so-called “sundown” cities and why they strike fear in one’s soul.

    Thanks also to The Roys Report for posting an encouraging article about unity among Christians.

  3. How can Christians not be together? Just remember, we’ll be spending eternity in the face of God all together…best to start practicing now. Thanks for this encouraging article.

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