America thinks it knows the story. Those who watch twenty-four hour news stations and subscribe to big city newspapers imagine they’ve got us pegged. Jena, Louisiana: The small southern town of bigots that is a lingering vestige of the cruel, racist history that scars the soul of our nation. America really has no idea. Jena is demonstrating a path towards racial harmony unprecedented in Louisiana or in much of the south. In fact, what is happening in Jena is a rarity no matter what state one watches the news or reads the paper. The Christian community of Jena is coming together in a way that is creating a new history in our town.
On Sunday night, November 18, Jena, Louisiana, took a huge leap forward in its march towards healing since the stress of last year’s events and the accompanying media scrutiny. The Ministerial Alliance sponsored a Community Thanksgiving Unity Service, which was held at the First Baptist Church in Jena. Many of the churches in our community called off regularly scheduled services in their own sanctuaries to attend this service. The sanctuary was packed on the floor and the balcony. Thirty to forty percent of those in attendance were black. It was an historic moment in our town. The praise and worship team from my own church opened with several songs representing our tradition; the host church led the united congregation in hymns from their tradition; and a community black choir shared some stirring songs from their tradition. Pastor Jimmy Young, a black minister from Jena, preached a passionate message about the blessings God has poured upon our town, despite the events that have come our way. His sermon was interrupted with applause and cheering many times. The host pastor, Dominick Dicarlo, was gracious as he humbly opened his church doors to a community needing a spiritual boost to invigorate the healing process our town has undertaken.
In a few short months, our town has responded to the criticism heaped upon it with a determined will and a hopeful heart. We’ve seen the truth we know about our community confirmed: We are a loving, Christian community that is willing and able to overcome any differences that may divide us. Our mayor has commissioned a Race Relations Board whose purpose is to address problems that currently exist and to bring our community together to avoid problems in the future. Our schools have embraced our children with love and patience, lifting them beyond the political issues of the day and bringing them back to the issues of math and science. Our law enforcement has shown wisdom and determination in making our streets and neighborhoods safer than ever. Our community continues to prosper financially at a rate above and beyond the state averages. Perhaps most important of all, our religious community has demonstrated a unity unseen in most cities, boroughs, and villages of America.
Immediately following the unity service, we gathered together in the church’s Family Life Center where men and women, boys and girls, of all races and denominations, shared their favorite treats and stories. We exchanged laughter and hugs in sincere fellowship with true southern style. There was no white table or black table. Freely and without hesitation, everyone mingled together, ate together, and prayed together. Many in living rooms across America would not recognize this Jena, yet this Jena is the true Jena. The people here have always been loving and caring: Now, we simply have drawn our inner circle big enough to include some we may not have always thought to include in the past. We haven’t solved every problem facing our community in these past months, but we’ve certainly proven that we have the fortitude to stick together and find solutions where others have not.
Racism exists throughout America. Trying to paint our town, or any town, as some apparition does nothing to address the real problems out there. It’s time America stop asking for whom the bell tolls each time a racial incident occurs. It tolls for thee, America. Jena has unfairly come to be known as the poster child for racism in our country. The Christian family, black and white, in Jena has determined that our town will be known for something else in the future. If the media will take a deeper look and report a community joining together in faith, in purpose, and in direction, Jena will soon become known as a town repairing the breach. A shining city on a hill where our faith in the principles of The Bible led us to a unity unseen in most American cities. The truth be known: Jena is becoming a town on the cutting edge of a new racial harmony that has yet to be seen not only in the south but also from sea to shining sea. God help us on our journey.