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A Black Guy, Brown Guy, and White Guy Walk into a Church

In the midst of our divided culture, these Madison, Wisconsin, churches are showing the power of God’s odd couples.

“ We are trying to work toward a future when the church is known to be people who are reconciling ... differences.”
High Point Church member

On January 15, 2012, two men, one white and one Black, stood together in the pulpit of High Point Church in Madison, Wisconsin. They were addressing a congregation that included High Point’s regular attendees and members from The Faith Place, a majority-Black congregation from a northern suburb about 25 miles away. The white guy was Nic Gibson, 43, lead pastor at High Point. The Black guy was Harold Rayford, 54, senior pastor at The Faith Place. They were there to talk about unity.

Their listeners might have initially missed that, though. After all, the preachers had chosen an unexpected text for their message: Acts 15:36-41. It tells the story of Paul and Barnabas’ conflict over whether to include John Mark on a planned tour back through the churches they had planted together. The two missionaries disagreed so sharply that they parted ways. What exactly did that have to do with unity? Gibson and Rayford’s chosen sermon title was equally confounding: “Team of Rivals.”

But then Rayford offered the key. “God,” he proclaimed, “uses odd teams of people.”

Genesis of Partnership

Rayford reached out to Gibson several months before that January Sunday of the joint service. He says, “The Bible says if you’re going to have friends you have to show yourself friendly.” By 2011, the Texas native had been ministering in Madison for over five years. He was acquainted with most of the African-American pastors in the overwhelmingly white city (Black residents make up just six percent of the population). But he didn’t know any white pastors and felt that the Lord “put in [his] heart a desire to reach out to them.” He made a list and started cold calling. Gibson was the first one to respond.

The two men met in Gibson’s office at High Point, a predominantly white congregation that then numbered around 400 members. “What I found was that Nic was extremely welcoming and genuinely concerned about me personally and the church that I pastored,” Rayford recalls in a phone call in August.

Despite their differences (age, race, denominations, and backgrounds) the two hit it off. “We had in common a love for God and for God’s people,” Rayford says. The two began meeting for breakfasts at Denny’s. They talked shop — what they were reading and preaching on — and sought to support one another in their personal and family lives. A bit sheepishly, Gibson admits that although they did pray together some, prayer wasn’t a major feature of their times together. They built a friendship and enjoyed teasing one another about their differences. “He’s like a hunting, fishing, hiking kind of guy,” Rayford explains. “If I had a bucket list of what I will not do, it’s hunting, fishing, and hiking.”

Rayford’s congregation took a big step of faith in late 2011. Having outgrown their building, they sold their land and bought a warehouse in the suburb of Sun Prairie, roughly a 40-minute drive from downtown Madison. During the renovations that winter, The Faith Place met on Sundays at a local school. But the school was already booked for Sunday, January 15. Rather than canceling worship, Rayford and Gibson agreed to hold a joint service at High Point. Then they decided to co-preach the sermon, something neither had done before. “We prepared it collaboratively,” Gibson says, “and then we sort of bounced back in forth in the pulpit in five-minute increments.”

They landed on the idea of “team of rivals” because they’d been talking about Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on President Lincoln by that name. “The basic thrust of the book,” Gibson explained to the joint congregation, “was that part of the political genius of Abraham Lincoln was that he didn’t just get a bunch of clones on his cabinet. He went out and found people who had very principled and serious disagreements with each other.” Lincoln’s idea was that by surrounding himself with a team of rivals, he could avoid narrow-minded thinking that arises from a lack of diversity. Teams without diversity, Gibson said, can accomplish simple, short-term tasks. But for more difficult, complex labors, you need a team of rivals. “In many instances, our differences are our strengths,” Rayford chimed in. “We must be careful not to allow our differences to distract us from what God has in mind when he called us together.”

Investing in Minority Churches

Gibson has served at High Point since 2010. The hunter-fisher-hiker Italian who calls himself a Hayekian (after the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek), recognizes that he’s an odd-man-out in Madison. Home of the University of Wisconsin, the city has long been a center for progressive political activity. With nearly 260,000 residents, Madison is the state’s second-largest and fastest-growing city. Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, lies about 80 miles to the east.

That population is three-fourths white. High Point’s staff, though, is racially diverse, with white, Asian, Black, and Hispanic team members. Gibson believes this makes his church “well positioned to pursue multicultural relationships. Multiethnic outreach was a passion of one of our former pastors.” He adds, “We have been banging this drum for several years and connecting it directly to the gospel in the written scriptures.”

One member, Femi Sokoya, 30, has been part of High Point since 2013 when he moved to Madison following graduate school at Duke University. He notes that these themes of unity and reconciliation are part of the church’s core values. He believes the congregation is striving for “multiethnicity and intercultural … worship” that represents the diversity of the body. He adds, “When events in the culture happen, we try to make sure that in pastoral prayers or in the sermon, or in a note about what’s going on, we comment on how important it is for us to denounce the idea of preferential treatment and prejudice based on race. And that we are trying to work toward an idea, a day, a future when the church is known to be in the forefront of people who are reconciling ... differences.”

The partnerships God has built between High Point Church and small minority congregations like Rayford’s offer both hope and insight for church leaders wanting to pursue collaboration in the midst of our highly polarized society. They have demonstrated what Rayford calls “the power of exchange,” where diverse churches bring to the table their particular assets. Rayford has hope for the good that can be forged across racial divides when leaders acknowledge that “they are all part of God’s one church” and are “co-pastors in the community [who] are pastoring co-workers” for its flourishing. Gibson points to the hope outlined in Ephesians 2, the power of the gospel to break down dividing walls of hostility: “Jesus’ flesh unites all divided flesh.”

Several large white churches in Madison have sought partnerships with local minority churches and shared resources. High Point’s niche, Gibson says, is supporting the “struggling but godly, competent minority pastors [in] those smaller churches that are doing good work but are largely ignored.” Gibson sees it as a matter of stewardship.

“Jesus is the Christ of all humanity, over all believers, and is the owner of all of our dollars,” he explains. “If we pictured Jesus as the CEO over all the churches simultaneously, wouldn’t he want to transfer cash from our church to The Faith Place if there was a real investment opportunity there? By getting past the idea of the money we are holding as ‘our money,’ we can think more broadly about how God would want to invest his money.” Asked if he’s faced pushback on the idea, he offers a strong no. “Our congregation is made up disproportionately of younger adults, and they love this emphasis.”

As he got to know Rayford, Gibson was impressed by how active Rayford was in the community — he was a member of the Black Leadership Council, had served with the Dane County Commission, and was President of the African American Council of Churches — and by the steps of faith his small congregation had taken. Gibson also appreciated how “solution-focused” his new friend was. Gibson explains: “Harold says, ‘Here’s the problem we need to fix’ and stays very solution-oriented on very clear problems. I think it’s the reason he can have very constructive relationships with a lot of different people.”

About two years into their friendship, The Faith Place’s congregants were finishing the remodeling of their property in Sun Prairie. “Nic came over just to hang out and see the progress,” Rayford recalls. “And he noticed that we didn’t have carpet.” The flock had determined not to take out a loan for their project, relying instead on tithes and offerings. Their giving didn’t quite stretch to new carpeting. “A couple of weeks later, High Point comes and says they’d like to buy us carpeting,” Rayford says. “They gave us enough money not only to carpet our sanctuary but to put flooring throughout the entire building.”

Gibson adds, “His church had already done an enormous amount to renovate the building. They had put in a lot of financial and sweat equity. So the carpet was just icing on the cake.”

Rayford also remembers a special day when a few dozen volunteers from High Point — including one with a backhoe — came and joined his parishioners for a major workday at the property. “We had some trees to plant and a lot of landscaping to do. High Point heard about it, sent about 30 people over. I loved the white people,” he laughs, “but that red bulldozer — that was the deal!” He thinks that one way The Faith Place helped the congregants of High Point was by bringing “an opportunity for their members to interact with African-American believers that they otherwise likely wouldn’t have had direct contact with.”

Sokoya agrees. He recalls a joint communion service and potluck dinner held at High Point a few years back. Members from both churches sat around supper tables, sharing worship, prayer, and a good meal. He’d like to see the two congregations do it more often.  “It’s important to have the diversity of personal experiences,” Sokoya says. “The more that I am in proximity with people from different socio-economic backgrounds, whether they look like me or not, the more I can’t disregard them.”

For three years, Rayford held a Tuesday night Bible study during the winter months at High Point for members in Madison who’d find it difficult to make the 40-minute drive out to Sun Prairie. “Nic was like, ‘Here’s the key to the building. Just come and go as you please,’” Rayford says. Meanwhile, he would come to High Point at Nic’s invitation to speak to the church’s college students. He also introduced Gibson to other leaders and pastors within Madison’s Black community.

Gibson says that Rayford connected him “more directly with the predominant experience of Black people generally within Madison.” He learned from Rayford “what was going on in the leadership of the Black community — both the good and the bad — and how churches like mine were perceived in the Black church and in the Black community.”  Gibson says his friendship with Rayford brought him “into discussions about policing, and other topics that are pretty standard [topics] and areas of advocacy among Black church leaders but can be easily unknown among white ones.”

Seeing Beyond Stereotypes

High Point has also been partnering with Lighthouse Church, a bilingual congregation of around 200, for several years. The congregation’s leaders are Marcio Sierra and his wife, Tia, who have been serving at Lighthouse since 1999. They began as youth leaders and in 2012 were ordained as senior pastors. Tia has been the principal at the bilingual Lighthouse Christian School since its launch in 2004. Gibson says his relationship with the Sierras has shown him that “the idea that competence and funding have a direct relationship is a fallacy. I think I could’ve easily thought that underfunded people were underfunded for a reason. But Marcio is a great example of someone doing great good who was profoundly and dramatically underfunded.”

When Gibson landed at High Point, Sierra called him to welcome him to town. The two became better acquainted through their participation in MP3, a local pastors’ network. There in 2015, Gibson introduced Sierra to High Point’s new executive pastor, Mike Beresford. High Point had designed the position such that 25 percent of Beresford’s time would be spent outside the church — they were hiring him not only for High Point but for Madison.

Beresford invited the Sierras over for dinner and quickly realized Marcio was exhausted. Both the church and the school were growing rapidly. “In the Hispanic church, the pastor is expected to do literally everything, from preaching to mowing the lawn,” Sierra explained to the older Beresford. “We’re expected to be at every social event.” The two started meeting twice a month for prayer. Beresford, who has more than 40 years’ experience in church ministry, became “a mentor to me,” Sierra says. “He taught me how to delegate, how to say no, how to run a leadership board.”

Beresford and Gibson were deeply impressed by what the Sierras were accomplishing in their “bootstrap” school. Nearly all the students in the K-6 school were from low-income, minority homes. Eighty percent attended on educational vouchers provided by the state of Wisconsin. Lighthouse’s students were outperforming their peers in the local public schools, and the school overall was scoring about 10 points higher on the state’s report card than Madison school district’s average overall. In 2018 when Lighthouse School decided to expand into grades seven and eight, High Point was one of a number of donors helping the Sierras purchase a larger building. Gibson realized that what the Sierras were doing with sweat and guts could be accelerated with some financial investment. “When they received that help, they did something that none of the rest of us have been able to do — including churches with multimillion-dollar budgets,” says Gibson.

The churches have partnered in other ways, too. Lighthouse and High Point hold a joint, bilingual Good Friday worship service annually. The women’s ministries from both congregations also gather for joint prayer and worship services. Stephanie Avila, a longtime member of Lighthouse, has helped lead the worship at these. She says, “It’s a powerful and beautiful testimony for unbelievers to see two different churches [whose] members look different, their backgrounds are different, but they’re coming together with one goal and that’s to serve people. I think it shows God’s heart.”

Avila add that she believes High Point has been inspired and encouraged by Lighthouse’s risk-taking. “High Point has learned from Lighthouse how to just go and do it,” she says. “I think over time they’ve kind of mustered up [courage] like, ‘Yeah, we can do this new thing just like Lighthouse has gone out and done this and taken these steps.’”

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“ To have the first thing be empathy and compassion for everyone in our community, that takes friendships and not just partnerships.”

Harold Rayford

Tackling Educational Inequities Together

In 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a national study called Race for Results. It compared children of different races on an index measuring 12 key indicators that have been linked to the likelihood of becoming middle class by middle age. These included, for example, growing up in a two-parent family, enrollment in preschool, being at or above proficiency in reading by fourth grade, living in a low-poverty neighborhood, and graduating high school. Wisconsin rated dead last for Black kids. The study garnered significant media attention in Dane County.  

The Casey report confirmed things Rayford had already seen:  “I was a librarian at the time. As an educator, I  saw it firsthand,” he recalls. “I saw a sense of hopelessness from many of the minority children in Madison, and I wanted to identify how to correct it.”

Gibson read the study and organized an event at High Point to discuss it. He invited people from a variety of theologically and politically liberal and conservative churches. He asked Rayford, the report’s main author, and a local pastor from a “liberal church” to speak.

As usual, Rayford was more focused on action than hand wringing. He was asking what his church could do to bring about positive change, Gibson remembers. “Harold felt that you had to focus on really early intervention, getting ahead of the lags in vocabulary and executive function and other stuff that gets pronounced by second grade. Therefore, he said what we needed to do was attack that first 1,800 days — the five years between birth and kindergarten. And I was like, that sounds great to me.”

Gibson continues, “I believe the way to support minority leaders is by getting behind their ideas.” It requires a willingness to experiment and risk. “There is native, immediate, embedded knowledge that they have that I don’t,” he says, “and either I’m going to trust them or I’m not.”

Rayford launched a new education and awareness campaign, called 1800 Days, targeted toward mothers in the County’s minority communities. “Nic pulled together some researchers and educators from his congregation,” he says. “They provided me some background on milestones, benchmarks that children should be able to do at six months, one year, two years, and so forth if that child is going to be fully prepared for kindergarten, entering on a level playing field.” Rayford raised grant dollars, packaged the material into handouts, and oversaw the creation of a website geared toward the African-American and Latino communities. The information was distributed through churches and sent home in kids’ backpacks from some of the area’s elementary schools. The initiative lost steam when Rayford took a new pastorate in Columbus, Ohio, in 2019. He says he hopes to launch a similar effort there.

Lighthouse and High Point have also launched a new nonprofit together: Impact Christian Schools (ICS). Its goal, says Beresford, is “about attacking systemic racism by providing high-quality education.” ICS grew out of the work that the two schools and Abundant Life Christian School, an initiative of City Church, had already been doing together. Sierra notes that Catholic schools often form associations and “help each other out.” But Protestant Christian schools typically operate very separately. “Impact is really a new thing,” he enthuses.

ICS’ vision is to expand Christian schooling to more communities, linking each school with a church plant. Gibson, Sierra, and Pastor Tom Flaherty from City Church serve as ICS’ board of directors. Dr. Charles Moore works both as ICS’ executive director and principal at High Point School. Beresford loves to brag on Lighthouse School’s achievements and thinks they can be replicated with other minority students. “We can’t change things for everybody,” he acknowledges. “But we can put these kids in classrooms with teachers who love them, believe in them, who are full of Christ, and provide an environment that is conducive to learning.” Each school will be co-located in the same building as the church plant. The church planter will focus on loving the families of the enrolled students. “The pastor will gain credibility in the neighborhood,” Beresford says, “because his church will be associated with this high-quality school that’s doing a great job educating neighborhood kids.”

‘We both need each other’

High Point is not the city’s largest or richest church — attendance is around 800 adults and the annual budget is $2.2 million. Nonetheless, it’s a church with power. Most congregants are white, middle to upper-middle class, and highly educated. In his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, author Andy Crouch argues that power, rightly deployed, can deepen our connections and relationships with one another. “Rightly used” is the operative phrase. Rayford and Sierra report that well-resourced churches often do not steward their power well; instead, they act paternalistically. Sierra says that what’s “usual” is the big white church “helping ‘the little Black church or Hispanic church’” without sensing their own need. Rayford agrees. He says that if one person in the relationship thinks he needs the other less than the other needs him, “he may look down on you.”

High Point, these pastors say, has done a good job avoiding that paternalism. Sierra says, “This partnership is like, ‘We need you, you need us.’ It was like, they will help us with something, we will help them with something. It’s this thing where we both need each other.”

Last year, for example, Lighthouse agreed to be High Point School’s sponsor in its a-pplication to Wisconsin’s educational choice program. High Point Christian School’s principal, Charles Moore, had experience with Milwaukee’s school choice program and encouraged the church to apply. By becoming a choice school, High Point could receive students paying with a voucher — thus ma-king the school more accessible for families of moderate means. Lighthouse’s sponsorship was “a big help,” says Beresford, because it meant that High Point School could start accepting students on vouchers right away instead of having to go through the two-year probation period Wisconsin mandates for new applicants without a sponsor. The move required risk on Lighthouse’s part. If High Point School defaults or runs afoul of any regulations governing the program, the state could terminate not only its vou-chers but Lighthouse’s as well. Given that 80 percent of Lighthouse’s students attend on vouchers, such a move would effectively close the school.

Rayford reports that neither he nor his church ever “felt like a charity case. They supported us financially in ways that were unprecedented,” he acknowledges. “I’m talking about putting tens of thousands of dollars over the course of years into our ministry — with no strings attached.” In return, he explains, The Faith Place did something missionally that High Point could not have done on its own. “Their board had been talking about ways to better serve the community,” Rayford says. As a white church they were aware of their limitations in being able to reach “a large number of Black people.” Supporting The Faith Place advanced High Point’s own local missions goals.

Gibson affirms this, noting that “inves-ting in a prominently African-American church, and growing in our relationship with them, was [meant] to help us get better at reaching people we were bad at reaching. So supporting Harold was both an infusion of investment toward the local mission work of his church, while also deepening a relationship where his church could help us do better multiethnic ministry at our own church.”

He continues, “We always referred to our gifts as ‘investment.’ All of the part-nership support we did with The Faith Place was based on successes they had already had or sacrifices they had already made.” High Point’s biggest investment was a three-year church development grant aimed at helping Rayford transition to full-time ministry with the church. “When we did [that] grant, they had already committed to supporting their pastor full time,” Gibson says. “They already had a business plan for supporting his full salary and growing their church. Once Harold had taken that huge plunge in faith, then we came alongside… The point was to build confidence [among] them, and to show that God would use their brothers and sisters in the work they were doing.”  

“They weren’t giving us a handout,” Rayford says. “They gave us a helping hand, and I believe that they built us into their mission. We were serving a segment of Madison that they simply did not have access to.”

The mutuality of partnership among the congregations is an echo of the sense of equality that pervades the men’s relationships. Rayford says that what he has valued most about his friendship with Gibson is that “I always felt like I was his peer.”  He adds, “I’ve found him to be a good sounding board. And I would dare say that the same is true about me for him.”

Sierra agrees. “There’s times when they might correct me or advise me on something, and vice versa,” he says. “Nic will call me and say, ‘Hey Marcio, I’m was thinking of helping this church. What do you think?’” Gibson says the friendships embody the three “P’s” of the MP3 pastors’ network they’ve been part of. “We pray for, promote, and protect each other.”

Beresford emphasizes that building healthy relationships among churches of different races, classes, and sizes takes intentionality and perseverance. A year into the relationship with Lighthouse Church, he remembers, “Marcio told me that his people still called us ‘the rich, white church.’” Beresford replied, “‘I know. We just have to be persistent.’”

Candor, too, is critical, says Sierra. When the men were working together to form ICS, some leaders at High Point thought that their board of elders could also serve as ICS’ board. Sierra recalls, “I said to them, ‘So you mean a bunch of white people that are in their 60s are going to be the board of an organization that’s mostly gonna serve minority students?” he chuckles. “They received that. They heard.”

Talking race

All the pastors agree that race is not the central focus of their relationships. As Rayford says, “Our differences are small in comparison to what we have in common.” At the same time, their cross-racial friendships enable much learning. “I don’t see myself as his Black friend,” Rayford says, “but he needed one — and I needed a white friend.” Gibson says that he’s learned from Rayford how “incredibly easy it is to fall into parochialism and the belief that the predominant  experience of the majority of your church is ubiquitous across the society and city.” Hearing about other realities from Rayford helps keep him from making that mistake. Rayford adds, “I think I helped Nic with some cultural competency matters — things to say [and] things not to say, how to address racially sensitive topics.”

Gibson was educated in schools with large minority populations and has had a number of Black friends.  Prior to his relationship with Harold and Marcio, he says, “I’d already heard a lot of horror stories about racism and prejudice and violence.” His eyes have been opened in other ways, though. One example concerns his views of the outcomes of affirmative action. He reports he’s generally been opposed to the policy, not believing it to be wise economically. Rayford told Gibson that his father was hired at General Motors through an affirmative action program in Texas and it was that employment that enabled Rayford to grow up middle class. Gibson says, “It made me think about whether affirmative action might be a useful policy in certain [contexts].”

He also recalls a time when he bounced an idea he’d had off of Rayford. Gibson thought that further relationship between their congregants might be advanced through an initiative where people from both churches took turns hosting one another for dinner in their homes. Rayford told  him it was a bad idea because his members didn’t want High Point congregants coming into their apartments. They were embarrassed because their homes were not as nice as those of High Point members.

In 2015, Madison broke out in street protests following the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old unarmed Black man, by police. In the aftermath, Rayford recalls having conversations with Gibson about “the Black experience in Madison” and how it felt to be in such a small minority. “We talked about biases and … the opportunity gap.” The local chapter of the NAACP asked Rayford to serve as a legal observer for the protest rallies and to recruit additional observers. Rayford invited Gibson to join him and they spent several hours together. “Harold talked a lot about his experiences,” Gibson remembers, “and my thought was, you need to say this stuff to my church.” So Gibson invited him. “I spoke to them about empathy,” Rayford remembers. “About why this mattered to us as African Americans and why it should matter to them.”

For cross-racial friendships to work, Sierra says, “There has to be this intentionally of, ‘You can learn from us. We get something from you, but there’s something you can get from us, too.’ I think that is very important.” He says Beresford and Gibson have taught him much about organizational management. At the same time, he and Tia have been able to provide them with advice and insight as High Point has partnered with a small group of Hispanics who are using the building for their church plant. Gibson adds that he has learned much Sierra about “leading in multicultural spaces.”  

Partnering cross-culturally “can be very difficult,” says Sierra, and conflicts happen. He tells of a time when some children from Lighthouse’s middle school wanted to play basketball. The school didn’t have sufficient numbers to field a team. Sierra approached Beresford and Gibson about these kids joining the team from High Point’s school. “The pastors all said, ‘Yes. No problem: Let’s do it,’” Sierra says. “But then when we went here, the families at High Point school were not too excited about it. It was like, ‘Can’t these kids have their own team’ and ‘There won’t be enough playing time for our kids.’ So I went to Mike and said, ‘It almost sounds like the whites are saying, ‘Can’t the Black and Hispanic kids have their own team on the side?’”

“This wasn’t me correcting them [so much as] it was just a friend talking to a friend and saying, ‘Hey, this does not look good. You need to teach your congregation about how things need to be different,’” Sierra explains. “And they received that well.” Beresford and Gibson immediately went to speak with the principal. In the end, the principal apologized, spoke with the parents, and the Lighthouse kids were invited to join the team. Nowadays the schools cooperate in other sports as well.

Candor and grace are must-haves in the relationship, these pastors agree. “We have open, honest conversations,” Rayford emphasizes. He says there’s always a good “back and forwards” in discussions with Nic and that disagreement is acceptable. Sierra adds, “Even if we disagree, we’re friends. There’s no room for offense.”

“We love each other. We trust each other,” Beresford sums up. “We’ve been in their pulpits; they’ve been in our pulpits. We’ve been in rooms where there’s been hard words, and we hug each other and keep moving forward. It’s been a privilege to work with these guys.”

Sokoya celebrates the genuine friendships Beresford and Gibson have forged across racial boundaries. He distinguishes between partnerships and friendships — the latter are deeper and more enduring; they are about truly sharing life together. Most congregants at High Point, he notes, “are still at the partnership level.” He believes that only a deeper connection will enable people to withstand the pressures of division.

As a Black man, he says he is “fatigued and mentally and emotionally drained” by current cultural realities. But his friendships with white members who own businesses have enabled him to care about their concerns as well as his own. “To have the first thing be empathy and compassion for everyone in our community, that takes those friendships and not just partnerships,” he says. He’s hopeful that High Point is “trying to move towards that in our cultural IQ in the church and in [encouraging] those kinds of friendships in the congregants as well as the leaders.”  

Luke Bobo contributed reporting and editorial direction to this article.

“I believe the way to support minority leaders is by getting behind their ideas.”
Nic Gibson
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