The Rev. Daniel Johnson, associate pastor of Congregational Formation and Missions at Second Baptist Church in East Memphis, saw an opportunity to reach outside the church walls and make new friends on the other side of town.
This was years before the horrific video of George Floyd’s, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, last moments went viral.
“Back in 2015, I think it was, a pastor friend in France told me a gospel choir from their church would be in the United States,” said Johnson. “They were on their way to St. Louis, but they were scheduled to be in Memphis. The choir needed someplace to sing.”
Johnson knew the daughter of Dr. William and Dianne Young, co-pastors of The Healing Center in Oakhaven. So, he asked if the predominantly African-American church might be willing to host a choir of “whites singing gospel music.
“The choir sings in English,” said Johnson. “I knew it was going to be a very unique situation – a white choir being hosted at a black church where none of these people knew each other.”
Dr. Young said “yes because this occasion would give the opportunity to host visitors to Memphis. We all love gospel music. We were told that gospel music over in Europe was as popular as the blues were in the 1960s.”
Well, that was just the beginning. The two congregations hosted the choir together at The Healing Center, and a good time was had by all.
Although, the two churches stayed in touch, there were no joint activities planned over the next year or so. And then, 2016 happened.
“It was the summer of 2016, and there were two police-related killings — one was in Baton Rouge, La. and the other killing happened in Dallas, Texas,” said Johnson. “I said, ‘We need to have a conversation about race,’ and that’s just what we did. There were a number of learning points for me when we got together.”
Dr. Young stressed that all of us should apply some kindness and understanding of others.
“Having a respectful discussion about race is something we should all be able to do,” Dr. Young said. “Sometimes, we make assumptions about people without giving them a chance. That’s what others do to us. They prejudge us. We don’t want to do that. God calls us to the ministry of reconciliation — not anger.”
Johnson said there were real heart-felt discussions between members of Second Baptist and The Healing Center. Both learned new things about the other.
“I distinctly remember a lady saying, quite frankly, ‘I didn’t even know there were white people who wanted to have this conversation,’” said Johnson. “That comment was striking as I have reflected back on that time.”
Second Baptist members were watching a Bible film series on race, called, “Beneath the Skin.” The congregations met and discussed a number of issues, raised questions for thought and walked away with a better understanding of the other, said Johnson.
Johnson’s associate pastor’s duties related to teaching compelled him to reach out, but the senior pastor of Second Baptist, Stephen Cook, applauded the effort.
“We need to be in each other’s’ spaces — white faces in black spaces and vice versa,” said Cook. “Loving God and loving neighbors are at the heart of our common Christian traditions. These are not abstract ideas to ponder, but real actions to practice.”
The two churches and their leaders are all friends now, a carefully treaded path, each meeting the other half-way, both willing to listen.
When Johnson and other members witnessed the aftermath of Floyd’s death, they felt helpless to do something to make things better.
So, Johnson and Second Baptist members surprised Dr. Young and Healing Center friends in mid-June by showing up on their grounds with a huge banner that read, “We Stand ‘Two Together’ With You.” Members signed personal messages and their names on the banner.
Dr. Young joined them and posed for a photo with his friends.
“Dianne (Young) told me once, ‘Thank you for reaching out,’” Johnson said. “It was so powerful in that moment.”
As they held the banner up in front of the church, cars drove down Tchulahoma Road blowing their horns and waving at the visitors.
“People really did love the banner,” said Dianne Young. “We appreciate it because our friends tried to be there at a very painful time. That means a lot.”