An interesting thing happened in Salisbury, North Carolina when two churches decided to merge. Now, there is nothing particularly unusual about churches merging, because I was even part one several years back.
But this was a bit different because it involved the merging of a black church pastored by a young black man, Derek Hawkins, and a predominantly white mega church pastored by Jay Stewart. And in the light of the racial divisions appearing in America’s social fabric, this may have more significance than we realize as both pastors felt they were led by the Holy Spirit to do this.
In an interview with the Christian Post (CP), Hawkins said the first step to the unlikely merger started in 2014, when he took his daughter to have her hair done and came across a sign for a downtown extension of Stewart’s mega church, The Refuge. This led to Derek attending a service and eventually asking the older middle-aged Stewart to take on a mentoring role as Derek was preparing to pastor a church in nearby Greensboro with a similar name, The House of Refuge Deliverance.
The two church leaders developed a close friendship, that eventually led to the merger. Both added that one of the keys to this merger was the close friendship the two pastoral leaders have developed.
Hawkins added that it has not been without its challenges telling CP:
“It is easier to live in comfort than to challenge the cultural norms that seek to keep us divided. For some, church is a place of safety and community. For most African Americans, during slavery, blacks were not allowed to read, let alone be in the same worship spaces as whites. That division is still seen and felt throughout our churches today. From preaching styles, worship styles, and many other customs, this has remained a massive barrier to seeing our churches become multiethnic.”
According to CP, a Baylor University study in 2019 revealed that only 16% of America’s churches were considered multiracial, but on a positive note this is over double the number that there were in 1998.
But as Stewart points out in Revelation 7:9, all races and tongues will be gathering together before the throne of Christ and believes we should be working to do this now on earth.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
And as we read the book of Acts, there are hints that the early church congregations were multiracial. We know, for example, there were black leaders and prophets in Antioch, one of the main Apostolic churches in the Book of Acts.
13 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Romans 13:1 ESV)
At least one of the five main leaders was black, a man called “Simeon who was called Niger.” The word Niger literally means black and Bible scholars have no doubt this referred to his race. But he was also listed beside another leader known as Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene is located in Libya, Africa which again suggests that he was also probably black.
There is also a possibility that Simeon may be the same Simon of Cyrene, whom the Romans forced to carry Christ’s cross (Mark 15:21). Don’t be thrown off by the different spellings. Simon and Simeon are interchangeable names much like David and Dave. Before his name was changed to Peter, the apostle was referred to as both Simeon (Acts 15:14) and Simon (Mark 1:16).
But Mark not only knew where Simon was from, namely the African city of Cyrene, the Gospel writer also knew the names of Simon’s two sons, Alexander and Rufus. This personal knowledge indicates that Mark knew Simon quite well, suggesting he was either a disciple of Christ or had become a Christian. We know that men from Cyrene became believers on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10).
By casually adding the names of Simon’s sons, it suggests that Mark also believed his readers knew who they were. Ancient Christian tradition states that the Rufus and his mother that the Apostle Paul referred to in Romans 16:13 is the same Rufus mentioned by Mark.
Paul adds in his letter to the Roman church that Rufus’ mother had treated the apostle like her own son. Since Paul had not yet been to Rome when he wrote this letter, it meant that Paul had known Rufus and his mother in another church before she moved to Rome. Antioch would certainly have fit the bill.