Although he knew a thread of racism ran through the fabric of his tiny Grenada, Mississippi, church, then-pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church Matt Schilling was still startled by the elder team’s unwillingness to invite a person of color to speak at the church’s annual missions conference. When asked “Why?” the most vocal member of the elder board replied matter-of-factly, “Because he’s black.”
But now, nearly two decades later, the church is a growing kaleidoscope of colors, nationalities, and socioeconomic situations. Current pastor Chris Accardy chalks it up to the power of the Gospel. “There’s no reason this church should be growing and thriving,” he admits. “God is bringing people together in Christ.”
A Troubled Past
The miracle of this church’s transformation sits starkly against the backdrop of its town’s history. In the 1960s, Grenada, Mississippi, was in the news for various civil rights abuses, including the use of mob violence against black children attempting to integrate into white schools. The city was added to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s itinerary on the historic Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear. Although race relations in Grenada have improved, remnants of racism and segregation linger: the preference for separate swimming pools, baseball teams of different colors, and separate days of the week favored by black and white high school students at the local movie theater.
God has begun drawing people from diverse backgrounds. One woman has started bringing the children of her African-American neighbors.
“Everybody will deny they’re racist, but it’s hard to bring people together in the community,” Accardy says.
When outsider Matt Schilling was called to shepherd the tiny church (then called Grenada Presbyterian) in 2000, the church looked much like the town. Accardy says that a man who left the church in the ‘90s told him that he once heard a racial slur come from the pastor during a sermon and an elder tell a racist joke in the lobby.
Crossing Comfort Zones
Schilling tackled the problem not with a head-on confrontation but simply through faithful preaching of God’s Word, including passages like Ephesians 2 and its teaching about the Gospel’s inclusiveness of all people groups. He also introduced the congregation to tools like Evangelism Explosion and organized a mission trip to West Virginia — efforts to get people thinking beyond their comfort zones. Additionally, he initiated an annual missions conference and served on a committee in the town with leaders from the local African-American community.
By the time Schilling left in 2009, the church had undergone a whittling down. And by the time Accardy — a New Englander who had moved to Mississippi to be more intentional about ministry to the poor — showed up, church attendance had decreased to about 20 regulars. With the dwindling congregation, Accardy took a job as a full-time night-shift nurse to support his family.
Although Accardy had previously held more traditional pastoral positions in the PCA and other Reformed churches in New England and the Midwest, he and his wife, Shelley, had served the marginalized in a variety of capacities, including working at a children’s home, caring for a girl with psychiatric needs, ministering to another girl coming out of prostitution, and unofficially adopting another young woman. With its median household income hovering around $26,000, Grenada particularly appealed to the Accardys, and they brought their heart for the poor to the small church.
Accardy says that the congregation has been able to build on the welcoming foundation that Schilling laid, particularly through outreach efforts to the community. They started a chapter of Celebrate Recovery for those leaving lifestyles of addiction. They have provided divorce care to others and ministered to a few who have histories with the criminal justice system. And they have joined with local African-American churches for special shared services.
Slowly, God has begun drawing people from diverse backgrounds. One young woman has started bringing the children of her African-American neighbors. An immigrant from the Philippines decided to make Grace her church home. An interracial couple has felt comfortable enough to stick around. Previous attendees who had once faced ridicule at the church because of their poverty have come back. Millennials who didn’t grow up in the church have begun coming on a regular basis.
“We were a conceited church,” admits RE Emeritus Watt O’Bryant, “But God has changed that, and we are welcoming to everyone now.” Perhaps much of this change can be attributed to members like O’Bryant who have been willing to ask themselves hard questions.
At its most recent outreach conference, the church invited Dewayne Williams, an African-American who runs workshops on racial reconciliation, to be a key speaker.
“To see this turnaround of this church actually having me, a black man, preach in that church and come fellowship with them to talk about these issues of racism — this is only the work of God,” says Williams, founder of West End Ministries, an outreach to the poor in a nearby county. “Only God can do this work in the heart of a person, where you can come from a history of hatred now to this.”
These days, Accardy is encouraged by the progress the church has made largely through the remaining long-time members who have been willing to deal with the past and continue to ask two crucial questions: “What’s best for God’s kingdom? And how can we look beyond our comfort zone?”