The Journey To Unity: Jenaology
The conditions were not perfect. The rain drizzled on those waiting to squirm their way into the small, white church on Highway 84 West of Jena. Inside, it was crowded; it was uncomfortably hot and humid. Extra chairs, put out to accommodate the swelling numbers squeezing into L & A Baptist Church, were filling quickly. Pastor Jimmy Young, the first pastor of L & A, in its one hundred years of existence, to actually live in Jena, nervously scrambled to find more seating…more chairs. Despite these conditions, the faces of those making history in Jena, Louisiana, on April 1, 2008, were filled with expectation. This moment was long overdue. It had been a long time coming.
The events of 2006/2007, having shaped the opinion of Jena in the consciousness of America, served as a divine shove by God that created the inertia for what took place in the small, black church across a tiny road from Goodpine Middle School, which, before integration, once stood as the first through twelfth grade black school in Jena. The small town in LaSalle Parish was shaken by a national spotlight that threatened to rip the town apart. That didn’t happen. The “powder keg” of racial prejudices that were highlighted in reports from CNN, and every major news organization in the world, did not explode in violence and hatred. The polarization that America expected to see on our streets and in our schools never materialized. And now, that wall of racial separation is quickly dissipating in our churches as well.
The LaSalle Parish Ministerial Alliance held events to break down the walls of racial and denominational separation in our community over the last year and a half. There was a meeting at the high school football stadium where all races joined together in song and prayer for unity. There were prayer meetings on the night before marches that revealed the heart of our people. There was a Thanksgiving Unity service where Pastor Young became the first black pastor to preach from the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Jena. Then something very special happened in Jena. About seven weeks ago, a revival broke out at Midway Baptist Church that saw hearts repenting of sin and indifference. They extended the revival as it grew and moved it to East Jena Baptist Church, where more people could be accommodated. Simultaneously, revival broke out at other local churches in all denominations. Many of the churches joined with the Midway revival. Others continued on their own. God was pouring out His spirit on our community.
The revival continued to grow until it was moved to Jena High School were the estimates were that over a thousand people attended some of the services. When the school needed its gym back, the revival moved to Temple Baptist Church, whose pastor publicly apologized to East Jena Baptist Church for the split that occurred over seventy years ago between the two churches. Nobody could even remember why the churches had split. At Temple, there was a moment after one service where a family member of one of the “Jena Six” boys embraced Reed Walters, the local D.A. who is prosecuting the young men, putting aside all hatred and guile in the name of Christ! Those in attendance were in tears as they applauded. CNN was nowhere to be found.
The rivalry between the North and South end of LaSalle parish was the next target of God’s reconciling force. The meeting moved to First Baptist Church in Olla where fences were mended and the power of God to bring His children together was manifested. The entire parish has been buzzing about the tremendous outpouring of His grace and unity. Craig Franklin, whose family has tirelessly lead the praise and worship during the revival, said from the pulpit that if Jena had to go through the events of the past year to be prepared for the events of the last seven weeks, then he’d gladly go through it again.
Still, something was lacking. The rumbling in some corners of the black community was that every one of these services was taking place in white churches. It seemed fine for the blacks to come to the white churches but why wouldn’t the whites come to their churches? The obvious answer was that there are no black churches that can handle anything near the crowds of people who have been attending the services. The logistics were impossible. Not willing to let any root of doubt fester in his people, Pastor Young joined together with the black pastors in Jena and revealed a plan to host the revival at the Ward 10 complex under a big ten that could hold a thousand worshippers. This is the same place where twenty thousand protesters gathered last year to march on Jena. It seemed to be the perfect place to drive home the point: THE CHRISTIANS OF JENA ARE UNITED, NOT DIVIDED.
“Perfect” wasn’t in God’s plan. The rains prevented the event in Ward 10 from taking place. The revival circled home again as it was held Monday night at Midway Baptist Church, where it had begun so many weeks ago. In faith, the decision was made to meet at L & A on Tuesday night. It was more important to demonstrate the power of unity between the black and white Christians in Jena than to create a comfortable environment for service. Thank God for men with vision! There was joy in the voices of everyone crammed into that small church as Ron Carr lead the local black choir in rousing renditions of powerful songs. Nobody was complaining as Pastor Bill Robertson, a white minister, drenched the congregation, both black and white, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The altars filled as pastors of both races prayed, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with congregants of churches all over LaSalle Parish: Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals of all stripes. This was better than perfect. A hundred years of racial separation was breeched at L & A Baptist Church. Who knows where this revival will go from here? God knows!
Pastor Robertson, the leader of the Midway revival, summed up the sentiment of the Christian community in Jena, Louisiana: We could care less if CNN shows up to give the same sort of publicity to the racial harmony, unity, and reconciliation being forged here in Jena as it did to the discord and division last year. We do not care what the world thinks anymore. We care what God thinks. His message to us is clear: He is one God with one people. In the Kingdom of God there is no race, no denomination, no bigotry of any kind.