Church merger 'undivided example in divided world'

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (BP) -- Longtime pastor Jack Stallings determined years ago to empathetically view life from the eyes of a black Christian, a feat he says he hasn't quite achieved, being he's white.

Retired pastor Jack Stallings, at podium, spoke when Robert Lee, standing at right, was installed as senior pastor of Collinswood Agape Baptist Church, a merger of congregations Stallings and Lee previously led separately in Portsmouth, Va. Seated is Little Grove Baptist Church Pastor Ralph Richardson, who preached the installation sermon.
Photo courtesy of Kelvin Oliver/Electric Eye
"A person that has helped me tremendously with that, and has probably been the single greatest contributor to whatever ability I have to be able to do that, is Rev. Lee," Stallings said of Robert Lee, installed Sunday (Aug. 18) as the senior pastor of Collinswood Agape Baptist Church, a merger of Stallings' and Lee's previous Portsmouth, Va., pastorates.

"Understanding him has made me, I believe, more able to understand and comprehend the thinking of other black Christians."

When short-term memory loss from hydrocephalus made it difficult for Stallings, 74, to continue as pastor of Collinswood Baptist Church, he turned to his longtime friend Lee. Would Lee, who had led the majority black Fairwood Agape Baptist Church since 2002, consider pastoring a merger of the two congregations?

"I have a very strong desire to see the division between white and black people eliminated," Stallings told BP. "And I think that I can say that within my own mind, I have made some progress in doing that, not all that's needful certainly, but some progress.

"I think that my relationship with Robert Lee, and then my joint experience with him of working to the goal of bringing about the merger of these two congregations," Stallings said, "has been used of the Lord to establish that pattern of thought in my mind, and I'm thankful to God for that. I'm thankful to Rev. Lee for his part in it, and I'm thankful for the attitude" of the congregations.

Both congregations voted to merge, and the new church family has worshipped as one since May on the campus of the former Collinswood Baptist at 1030 City Park Ave.

"If this could lead to some reduction," Stallings said, "of the gulf and the divisions that stand between white and black Christians, this would be a wonderful thing, and I don't want to speak in grandiose terms."

Lee, 69, described the merger as a "win-win. Part of it," he told BP, "was the fact that we had an opportunity to go to a better building" and also a new community to evangelize.

"Our church was located in the middle of the largest low-income project in Portsmouth. There were 1,500 rental homes that were demolished back in 2002, the same year I became pastor," Lee said. "That area has been in stages of redevelopment, but they also went into a slump."

Redevelopment in the former Fairwood Homes community had not reached the third phase, which would include the area of Lee's former pastorate. In the meantime, the church had no running water, was a half-mile from the nearest city water line, and relied on well water to operate bathroom facilities. Bottled water was used otherwise. What the city predicted would be an eight-year wait for running water had stretched to 17 years, as the church continued to wait.

When short-term memory loss associated with hydrocephalus made it too difficult for Jack Stallings, at left, to continue as pastor of Collinswood Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Va., he turned to his friend Robert Lee to lead a merger of Collinswood and Fairwood Agape Baptist Church, Lee's former pastorate.
Photo courtesy of Kelvin Oliver/Electric Eye
Several planning sessions and fellowships preceded the merger, Lee said, which benefitted from pro-bono legal services from a congregant and other assistance from The Bridge Network of Churches of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV). The new church cooperates with both the BGAV and the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia. Lee also leads the Virginia African American Fellowship, the state arm of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The merger included challenges, Lee said, including music and worship styles, race and politics.

"All of those things we had to talk about and see if we were still, as a church, willing to lay all of that aside in order for the Kingdom to be expanded," Lee said. "We haven't concentrated on the division of the country -- more so the unity, that we feel God has called us to be witnesses in that community."

The unified congregation is working well, Lee said, and members have renovated the church building, painting walls and laying carpet in advance of Lee's installation.

Sunday, more than 300 members and guests attended the installation service, Lee told BP. The new membership is still forming, but Lee estimates the full Sunday attendance of both churches has continued, with more than 100 in worship. Nine new members have joined.

"We just try to concentrate as (the apostle) Paul said (in Philippians) on those things that are lovely and pure, those things of a good report," Lee said. "We believe God has called us to be an undivided example in a divided world."

Lee believes God was in his former congregation's infrastructure challenges.

"It was a very unusual thing. I could see God in that, because even though we didn't have (water), and here we were trying to make plans to add on and get a parking lot, God already knew that this was going to happen, I believe," Lee told BP. "I look at little things like that and how God shows and speaks through circumstances.

"He speaks through the Bible, prayer, circumstances and the church," Lee said. "When the church voted, that was God speaking. The circumstances were the pastor's health and both churches having a decline in attendance, and then the prayer helped confirm all of it, so God was speaking.

"We just had to be listening, and then be willing to do what God said do."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’'concerns nationally and globally.
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