Two Nashville Pastors Bring Black and White Together

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Pastor Furman Fordham and Pastor Ken Wetmore are two of more than a dozen Adventist pastors who have opened up a new dialogue between white and black Adventist churches. It began with the pastors, then moved to their church members, and finally reached out into their community of Nashville. “Imagine Nashville” is a large-scale, open-ended project that shakes off limitations and seeks to create genuine conversation and understanding between congregations and individuals.

Fordham attended a primarily black academy (Pine Forge) and college (Oakwood), and now pastors Riverside Chapel in the regional South Central Conference. Wetmore attended a primarily white academy (Fletcher) and college (Southern) and now pastors the Madison Campus Church in the state Kentucky-Tennessee Conference.

Question: You each pastor the largest church in your conference in the city of Nashville that you share. Last September, you spearheaded an event for all of the churches in Nashville, called “Imagine Nashville.” Would you describe this as a city-wide prayer meeting?

Furman Fordham: Yes, the first event was like a joint prayer meeting. 

Let me go back to how it all started: The Kentucky-Tennessee Conference was talking about having an evangelistic field school in the city of Nashville which would be a project with all of their churches. The Kentucky-Tennesse Conference president talked to the president of the South Central Conference, and the regional conference president said that he would like his churches in Nashville to participate. (Both of our conference headquarters are located in the Nashville metro area.)

So we had an introductory meeting with all of the pastors during which our administrators explained their vision of our congregations taking hands to share a city-wide event.

Well, Ken and I were two of the vocal pastors. We said we weren’t too excited about coming together for just one evangelistic event and that being the whole extent of it.

We needed something that would include an evangelistic meeting but that might go beyond just that. A lot of the other pastors around the table were on the same page. We said, “Yes, we want a deeper connection — not just one event.”

So after that meeting, we got together to form a ministerial group that met regularly to pray together and to get to know each other. That worked so well that we said: “Let’s do the same for our churches.”

Ken Wetmore: That first meeting was held at the South Central Conference office. Originally, the plan was to call the program “Impact Nashville.” 

Pastor Fordham is pretty outspoken. I am too. In that meeting, we said: “We are all for evangelism. But if this is all we want to accomplish, I am not that excited.”

Something deeper — a bigger conversation — really resonated with me. 

The church I pastor has about 1,600 members. That makes it far and away the largest church in my conference. I have been pastoring there now for about two years. One thing I quickly realized after beginning my ministry there was that there really wasn’t anyone around that I could talk to and bounce ideas off. There are lots of great pastors in my conference who I really like a lot. But with the size of my church we weren’t really in the same kind of situation. So I started looking for a Baptist or Methodist pastor I could ask questions about large-scale issues. I just couldn’t find anyone in the area with the same experience. 

Then we were at that joint meeting between our two conferences, and I felt almost guilty to remember there were all these Adventist churches in Nashville I hadn’t even thought of. There was this church right down the road from mine where the pastor also had a large congregation with many of the same issues and challenges.

After the meeting I prayed: “God, if you think this is the guy I should use as an accountability partner, have him contact me.”

The next day he sent me a message. 

Now we get together at least once a month to talk and pray. And it is so amazing to have someone who understands what it is like to pastor a large church in an Adventist culture. 

Those kinds of relationships were being missed out on across the board. 

So are you still planning the joint evangelistic campaign?

Fordham: Yes, the plan was for a city-wide evangelistic effort for summer 2018. That is still on the table, but it is just one of many things we are trying to do together. Planning the evangelistic campaign is not the only reason we are getting together.

So tell me more about the event in September. How many people came? 

Wetmore: We think it was about 500 people. 

What reaction and feedback did you get?

Fordham: It was amazing. It just blew our minds. We are striking out on something that we think is helpful, necessary, and timely. I don’t know if all of our members feel the same. 

I pastor an African-American congregation. We feel we have been on the receiving end of some discriminatory actions going back 50 years in history. 

But amazingly, to a person, I had individuals saying this was the greatest prayer meeting they had ever attended and saying this was an answer to prayers; they had been asking God to bring us together. 

Wetmore: Absolutely; I had just the same reaction as Furman. 

I will say that I think the hurt and wounds are not the same on my side of the street. For my congregation, there is more of an opinion: Why wouldn’t we do things together?

So while we are not necessarily the victims, there is an understanding that things in the past have caused pain. My congregation has a serious interest in learning to to do things differently and to mend things that need to be mended. For all of us, the event in September and the overall project has been special. My church loved it. It is rare for a pastor not to hear some negative comment, but I haven’t heard even one so far.

Now people are starting to really realize the relationships we have been missing out on. There are church members in my church who would benefit from knowing members in Pastor Fordham’s church. And friendships are beginning to grow out of this.

Fordham: We started events for our churches that mirrored the path the Holy Spirit was leading the individual pastors on. So first we started developing a friendship, then we wanted our people to develop friendships.

So after the first event last September, we decided that instead of diving into planning evangelistic meetings, we would work to deepen our relationship. We brought an expert in to talk about relationships. The second joint meeting was near the Thanksgiving holiday, so we challenged members to invite someone from a different church over for a meal.

At a joint communion we held just recently, someone testified as to how wonderful it was to start developing a relationship with someone from a different church.

God is allowing us to lead our members to develop some of the same relational connectedness that we have found with each other.

We are hoping that these relationships will grow and blossom so that by the summer, when we are doing evangelism together, we will really have a strong connection with each other.

Like the 120 in the upper room, we want to deepen our relationships. Then, in the early summer, we will be able to begin reaching out to our community as one.

Wetmore: We have unveiled a plan for five different ministry tracks. The first is for all of our members who want to pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on our Nashville community to come together simultaneously for a joint prayer experience. A different group that has a passion for youth and young adults will be doing ministries geared toward them. A third group will be getting equipped for evangelism like Bible studies. Imagine Outreach is the fourth group, planning events in our communities. The fifth group is Imagine Fellowship.

Fordham: All of these five tracks fall under the moniker of  “Imagine what if we did these things together?” 

(And, of course, we are not suggesting that there aren’t still appropriate ministries for our churches to do individually.) 

Wetmore: Obviously, we don’t feel limited to those five tracks. The plan is for the Nashville Adventist churches to meet, all together, three times a year and then those who are interested in the different tracks to meet more often.

Fordham: And we hope that this will really be the beginning of a ministry that will have a lasting impact in our community.

Wetmore: One thing that is important to understand about the “Imagine Nashville” movement: it began with the idea of doing joint evangelism, but it has blossomed and grown. Every time we meet it changes and grows. To us, it doesn’t feel that there is any other agenda other than God’s. To us, it feels that every time we get together there is something new and beautiful. 

Yes, evangelism will still be happening, but true unity must happen first. The primary idea is this: What can we do better together?

Working together is so exciting. I don’t know how far it will morph from here. I do know that God is in charge, and I keep seeing him do amazing things.

On a practical note: With such large congregations, how do you have the space to meet together?

Fordham: The original idea was to rotate our meetings through our various churches. But it turns out we need churches that can seat 500 to 800 people. Yes, we have a good problem. 

Wetmore: So far, our joint events have been held at Riverside Chapel (Pastor Fordham’s church), the Madison Campus Church (my church), and most recently at the Nashville Spanish Church where there is a gymnasium that seats 800. It was amazing. The whole service was in both English and Spanish. That was a whole added dimension. 

What reaction did you each have to the initial "Imagine Nashville" event? Did your own reactions surprise yourselves in any way? 

Fordham: I was floored. I have been pastoring my church for 11 years. A 40-year member said that was the absolute greatest, Holy-Spirit-convicting service that she has ever experienced. It dawned on me that God is using us for something far larger than we imagine. 

I didn’t know that what we were planning was going to be like water for some thirsty souls. I thought that if we had a hundred people show up, that would be great. But we probably had 500. 

Then, before the second event, I thought maybe the excitement had worn out, but we had probably 800 attend. I couldn’t believe it. From a ministry-effectiveness point of view it has already gone way beyond my expectations.

And personally, I have become so much more sensitive, I hope, to a different perspective. I have become much more interested in my brothers and sisters from different cultures and churches. I now see us as one family. My love for others have been deepened. I think I have been changed. Prior to this, I wasn’t antithetical to churches from across the color line — they just weren’t on my radar. I didn’t think of them as my church. But now I have changed.

Wetmore: I hate to follow that but yeah, exactly. You plan something and wonder whether anyone will show up. I was nervous because the first meeting was at Pastor Fordham’s church, and I worried that none of my church members would show up, and it would just be me and the associate pastors. I wondered what kind of message that would send. 

I felt a huge sense of relief as I looked back and saw my church members streaming in. 

Then to be in there when we were all worshipping together — well, I have been to a lot of worship experiences in my life, but this was the best worship I have ever been to. 

It was phenomenal — the feeling in the room. I can’t describe what it was like to worship with people who you knew existed but whom you had never really acknowledged before. What it was like to see people meeting and hugging. 

The speakers were amazing. One of the key lines was: “See me. Look at me for who I am and who God created me to be. Don’t look past me. Don’t look over me.”

That message really resonated throughout that meeting. 

One moment that sticks out for me was at the end. As I was walking out, an elderly woman who was one of Pastor Fordham’s church members walked up to me and said: “Thank you for being here.” I don’t know exactly what it meant to her, but it clearly meant something big, and that resonated.

Of course, after the first meeting went well, then I wondered: “Will people show up for a second time?”

But again, I watched people pour in. That service focused on talking about things that can be a little uncomfortable and about learning to dialogue.

It has been so great to be able to talk to Furman. Our friendship has given me the opportunity to ask about different things; as a white guy, I can genuinely ask him to explain why certain things are a big deal. And Furman doesn’t say, as he could: “Are you stupid?” No, he actually explains things to me. We trust each other, and he knows that I am really trying to understand.

For instance, I have been trying for a long time to understand why we have two different conferences in our church? Why do we need a regional conference and a state conference both? I really honestly didn’t understand. I wanted to know why it was controversial to suggest that we combine conferences? Talking to Furman and hearing his perspective was enlightening. 

Because I thought: If we combined our two conferences that cover the same territory, the South Central Conference would become part of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference.

Furman called me out. He asked me why my conference wouldn’t become part of the South Central Conference instead, if it made sense? Why did I assume that his regional conference would become part of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference? So that broadened my viewpoint, helped me to see things differently, and helped me understand some of the context.

I wanted to ask you about the conferences. Beyond semantics, why can’t we combine them?

Fordham: As Adventists, we generally like to trace our remnant roots all the way back to the Gospel being communicated in the Garden of Eden. We like to follow God’s remnant church from the people of Israel in the Old Testament through to the Church of Christ in the New Testament, then all through the ages from the early Christian church to the Waldenses and the Reformation — basically the whole story told in The Great Controversy. In this story, we talk about how the Roman Catholic Church got off base, and that is when they ceased to be God’s remnant church.

If you continue this storyline within the Adventist church in more recent history, what do you see? In the U.S. not so very long ago, tithe-paying blacks were refused admittance to Adventist academies they were paying for. My grandfather couldn’t eat in the Review cafeteria that his money helped to pay for.

A fair-skinned African-American lady was taken to one of our Adventist hospitals. When they found out she was black, they refused her admittance. She died.

Black Adventists got together and said “We can’t do this anymore.”

I would contend that it was the white churches who left. From an ecclesiological perspective, I think the white people left God’s true church.

And we would welcome you back! 

You are assuming that it was us who went somewhere. No — you kicked us out. Yes, we are inviting you back. 

This just illustrates the fact that if we are to be one, we have to respect each other, rather than assuming it is one group who needs to come back to the fold. No, we have to think about the best way to come together. 

It might make more sense to merge unions and conferences into regional conferences.

One thing that frustrates African-Americans when this conversation occurs is the assumption that black churches will be dissolved.

So what is the future of state conferences?

Wetmore: The conversation about where we are, where we have been, and where we want to go now has to be in the context of us, and not I. 

And if we don’t know each other at all, how can we have a conversation about this in the first place?

What I have learned through “Imagine Nashville” is that the organizational structure of the church doesn’t need to change for us to talk together, work together, and be effective together. 

“Imagine Nashville” will be successful if we are still effectively working together 20 years from now — even if we both still have our separate conferences. 

I can’t begin to understand the hurt and pain that has occurred. I had never heard about that woman who was turned away at the hospital. But now I have been talking to pastors who have themselves been turned away from Adventist universities. That puts things in a different context. 

In my view, it is not the person who caused the hurt who gets to dictate when the other person has to “move on.” The organization that has caused the hurt needs to apologize, and then allow the other person or organization to do what they need to do until they feel safe. 

I am reminded of a time when a gentleman, in a situation of spousal abuse, asked me to tell his wife to forgive him and move back home. I said: “I can’t do that. She can’t move back until she feels safe. All you can do is love her and apologize and wait.”

I feel embarrassed about what our church allowed to happen.

You heard what Furman said. The regional conferences didn’t go anywhere. It was the white conferences who moved away, in his view, from the regional conferences. From the African-American standpoint, there has to be a comfort level and a belief that what happened will not happen again. They have to believe that there has been substantive change and that there is a genuine belief that we are all equal in God’s eyes — not that anyone is worth a little bit less. And that is something that might take some time. But in the meantime, we can’t break off the dialogue.

I am incredibly blessed to have Furman’s friendship. I have gained so much in just this short time. For me, just this friendship is a huge thing. I truly enjoy hanging out with Pastor Fordham. 

Fordham: You are participating in the triad of our conversation here. I know Ken doesn’t ever mean to offend me.

And I have learned from him. I have a better understanding now about how difficult it is to walk on eggshells all the time, worrying you come across as racist, and how hard it is to repeatedly apologize for something your grandfather did.

At a joint Communion service this past Sabbath, we washed each other’s feet. We prayed for forgiveness. I don’t think we need any structural changes to have that. Structural changes may flow and follow, but dialogue and understanding comes first.

With my tongue firmly in cheek, I can say: “If white Adventists really want to tear down color lines, every single white member could transfer membership to a black church. Then, immediately, we wouldn’t have different churches."

Sometimes, I think that any rush to change regional conferences is just a worry about appearance and how our church looks on the surface.

Now there are indications that things are changing. Last year when students at Andrews University demanded an apology for past racial hurts, the administration responded with grace. This should become the standard. More recently, however, a student at Southern posted a racial slur linking to Black History Month on a social media forum, and people are watching how the faculty and staff respond.

Just one last question. Do you know of any similar projects as “Imagine Nashville” done by other Adventist churches or even non-Adventist denominations? Or have people begun contacting you since you started, and since you shared your project with the NAD Year-End meetings in October, to ask how they can try to replicate it?

Fordham: I am not aware of any other churches that have tried to do this on a massive scale. But I have been contacted by two pastors, one who said he has begun meeting with a counterpoint, similar to what Pastor Wetmore and I have been doing. A Maryland pastor asked to come to one of our meetings because he feels it is time for something like this, and he wants to work on something similar.

Wetmore: In other, places Adventist churches across state/regional conferences come together for evangelistic series, but I am not aware of anything deeper than that. I haven’t been directly contacted, but church members have told me me that friends and family members in other conferences are watching to see what we do and how it works. I think in the end only time will tell.

 

Photos courtesy of Michael Hubbard (main photo) and Mark Denman (photos in article body).

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