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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

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“I believe the way to support minority leaders is by getting behind their ideas.”
Nic Gibson
This story is from Common Good issue
05.
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