Often, when pastors and churches go their separate ways in a divisive split, the two never come together again.
But two ministers here have been to able to help heal the wounds — even though it took a decade to happen.
To celebrate a milestone at his new church, the Rev. Anthony Kelley extended an olive branch to his old church.
And it was a glorious time of fellowship, praise and worship as Kelley and the Greater First Church Baptist of Baker celebrated its 10-year church anniversary with special guests Mount Zion First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge.
“It was a great feeling,” Kelley said following the anniversary service on May 15.
Kelley served as pastor of the historic Mount Zion for just over a year before resigning in 2006 over “tension” with the Board of Trustees. One prominent local pastor called the nasty split of the city’s oldest predominantly black congregation “a dark day in Baton Rouge.”
That day seemed all but forgotten as the reunion between the two churches, which also included a banquet the night before, was part of a vision Kelley had had since leaving Mount Zion.
“The vision was that we would come together and celebrate the fact that we know how to be reconciled, that we know how to forgive one another, and that in the body of Christ it’s unusual that churches can come back together again because of the reality of splitting and disagreeing,” Kelley said.
The theme of the anniversary was “Keeping the Vision Alive: Go and be Reconciled” taken from Matthew 5:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:18.
That spirit of reconciliation was evident throughout the program, which featured a welcome address from the Greater First, a hearty response from Mount Zion, the reading of Greater First’s history and uplifting music from the choirs of both churches.
“Everything was wonderful,” said Gerald Sigers, 61, a deacon at Greater First who was a member of Mount Zion from 1995-2006. “Everybody was glad to see each other from both churches. We just had a wonderful time.”
Like Sigers, Auria Lombard left Mount Zion 10 years ago to follow Kelley.
“I think it’s great,” said Lombard, 35. “Anytime two groups decide to let things go, let the past and all of that extra go and you actually fellowship in Christ, I think that’s good.”
The program really came together around the main speaker for the anniversary service, the Rev. René Brown, who succeeded Kelley at Mount Zion.
Brown said it had been a dream of his to unite with Greater First since taking over at Mount Zion. A Louisiana native and Southern University graduate, Brown came to Baton Rouge in 2007 from Lawrence, Kansas.
“It means that my prayers were answered,” he said. “When I first came here, I reached out to (Kelley), and it was still fresh for him. So I started praying about it and asking God to reconcile us.”
Brown, who is president of the Fourth District Baptist Association of more than 200 predominantly black churches in the six-parish area around Baton Rouge, said it’s particularity difficult for black churches to come together after a separation.
“There’s just a lack of trust for us in general,” he said. “We don’t trust each other, and it’s the same in the church, the same with clergy. You would think that clergy wouldn’t have that issue.”
Kelley and Brown resolved not to make it an issue.
“I think what we modeled was that people of God can work together, and people of God must be models for the community, and we’re able to do that and have that moral authority like we should,” Kelley said.
“It means a lot to me because when ministers or pastors can let go and say let’s move past this, it’s a good example for the people,” Brown said. “The people will follow our lead but you got to be willing to take the lead.”
Kelley took the lead, initiating contact with Brown and Mount Zion earlier this year after speaking with his church officers.
“It’s a milestone, 10 years, so I wanted to make it very special and unique,” Kelley said. “It was a lot of resolution. … It was even greater than we expected.”
Brown’s inspiring anniversary message was titled “God’s Way of Counting” from 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.
“When God counts, he doesn’t count like us,” Brown told the congregations. “When God counts, he counts by forgetting; we count by adding up stuff.”
Brown stressed that the church should embody reconciliation and forgiveness.
“The one place that’s supposed to major in reconciliation is the one place that specializes in amputation,” Brown said. “The church is Christ’s headquarters. It’s what he uses to reconcile his children back to himself … If God could use Christ to reconcile us back to him and then he gave us the church that he made Christ the head of, we ought to as a church be able to reconcile people back to him because of the church.”
Kelley never intended to organize a church. He took over an established church when he came to Baton Rouge in 2005 from Gary, Indiana, to replace iconic pastor and civil rights leader the Rev. T.J. Jemison.
“To come here and fill the vacancy that Dr. Jemison left, it was an extraordinary journey,” Kelley said.
After his short tenure, more than 100 members joined to organize Greater First.
“I never had any hard feelings,” Sigers said. “It was just a weird situation the way things happened back then. I liked Pastor Kelley and decided to follow him.”
Lombard, who had been a member of Mount Zion since about the age of 10, said she relished the opportunity for a fresh start.
“Starting at a new church is something like I’ve never been a part of and didn’t really know what to do,” said Lombard, who works with the youth m inistry at Greater First. “But I’m with a bunch of people who have great experience … You’re watching an actual church become a legacy.”
Kelley enjoyed sharing with former members and was thankful to many of them for bringing him to Baton Rouge.
“Things worked out for our best, because it has been a blessing to be here these 10 years,” he said.
Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Terry Robinson can be reached at (225) 388-0238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.