Two Free Methodists elders were center stage when more than 2,000 people from multiple Wesleyan denominations gathered for this year’s New Room Conference in Brentwood, Tennessee. Amid a schedule packed with well-known authors, theologians and musicians, Derrick Shields and Keith Cowart shared about the pastoral transition at Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia.
Shields, a member of the Free Methodist congregation’s staff since 2011 and the executive pastor since 2014, became the church’s new lead pastor on Oct. 28. Cowart, the church’s founding pastor, will become the new superintendent of the Southeast Region of the Free Methodist Church on Jan. 1 following the retirement of Darrel Riley. Shields is African-American, and Cowart is white.
“Their story of friendship and leadership together is one that we have just wanted you to hear, and especially the way in which they have embodied such a beautiful example of banded friendship across the line of race,” said New Room Executive Director David Thomas as he introduced Shields and Cowart.
Shields was born in Louisiana and raised in Coffeeville, Mississippi, where integration arrived in the 1970s as he entered high school. Central High School, which had served African-American students, was converted into an elementary school, and all of the high school students were supposed to attend Coffeeville High School that had previously been limited to white students.
“My parents decided to go against what was in the black community, which was a boycott of the school because of the way it was being done,” Shields said. “I went from junior high school, which was all black, to high school with just a handful of black students in this predominantly white school. That was my introduction to integration, and it was the first time I had ever been in a majority white setting in my life.”
Shields said the experience was shocking. He had some teachers who supported and encouraged him, but he was troubled by Coffeeville High ignoring any reference to Central High.
“That was a defining moment —just to realize your whole history could be erased; no pictures of teams, no trophies, … nothing from Central High,” Shields said. “It’s like Central High campus never existed, and nobody ever said a word about it.”
Shields’ teen experiences continued to shape him as an adult, and he questioned whether he should allow himself to be considered for the senior pastor role at Christ Community Church.
“It’s amazing how things like that stay with you, and you harbor some bitterness. You harbor some pain and some anger,” Shields said.
A few months ago, Shields shared in a sermon about how Coffeeville handled the high school integration.
“As I was talking, it was like the Holy Spirit reminded me, ‘That’s the reason why you have problems trusting white people to this day, because of what you experienced there,’” Shields said. “In the few minutes that I shared that on that Sunday morning, it’s like a healing came over me, because I was in a space that it was OK for me to tell what my experience was.”
Cowart also grew up attending newly integrated schools. As an athlete, he experienced racial unity on the baseball diamond and football field. Everyone seemed to get along at school, but that harmony wasn’t reflected elsewhere in the community.
“It never left the bounds from the classroom to the rest of our lives. We went to school together. We never hung out on the weekends. We never ate meals together apart from school,” Cowart said. “I never had an African-American friend who came to my house; I never went to their house.”
In seminary, Cowart read “Let Justice Roll Down” by civil rights leader John Perkins.
“It absolutely broke my heart. I realized I had lived among African-Americans my whole life, and I didn’t really know them,” Cowart said. “I didn’t understand their story. I had never truly done life together.”
He left seminary believing God wanted him to help break down racial barriers. During his first pastoral post, he started an outreach ministry because of a lack of youth in the church, but the church board chairman and treasurer became upset about young African-Americans playing basketball at the church and told them to leave. Cowart appealed to a crowded church board meeting and also preached a sermon titled “Whose Church Is It?”
“I prayed, and I believed that revival would break out,” Cowart recalled. “Something broke out, but it wasn’t a revival.”
Cowart was moved a few weeks later to another congregation. Five years later, he joined the Free Methodist denomination and planted Christ Community Church with diversity as a core value.
Cowart said multicultural churches must be willing to have real conversations that are uncomfortable.
“One of the things we have to give up to do diversity in church is we’ve got to give up the comfort and the familiarity of a homogeneous community. There’s a reason why the homogeneous principle was a bedrock of the church growth movement,” Cowart said. “It’s easier to do community when everybody thinks like you and looks like you and goes to the same school and drives the same kind of cars. You naturally know how to communicate, how to interact.”
But Cowart said that although interactions can be awkward in a multicultural church, homogeneity has a major problem: “When we are always around the same people, we share the same blind spots.”
Cowart said trust is the key to a multicultural church because it allows us to speak into each other’s lives.
“When we speak to each other without trust, we hear through filters that are shaped by prejudices and assumptions. We speak in ways that are not clearly understood,” said Cowart, who noted increasing division because of media “polarization of very complex issues and nothing but soundbites that are meant to increase the polarization, and it’s only at the band level — the small group level — when we sit down and truly get to know each other as human beings and hear each other’s stories that trust begins to build.”
Cowart said we must become friends who “sit down and look at each other eye to eye, begin to listen to each other’s stories, begin to share each other’s pain and celebrate each other’s hopes.”7