PHILADELPHIA (BRN) – Philadelphia pastor Robert Fontell says being a part of a racial reconciliation journey with 12 other Baptist Resource Network (BRN) pastors, both African American and Anglo, has given him hope.
His church, Calvary Christian Church, located in the Oxford Circle community in northeast Philadelphia, had been part of the BRN when he became its pastor 12 years ago. He had left a career in credit and financing and service as a youth pastor at Bible Way Baptist Church in West Philadelphia to serve at Calvary Christian full-time.
It was then when he began working with Hal Hopkins, Larry Anderson and Kyle Canty, the BRN leaders who eventually invited him to participate in BRN’s racial reconciliation cohort.
Fontell said he trusted their heart for “bringing equality, not only in our state, but throughout our country.” He knew their character and what they were trying to accomplish, he said, so he felt “excited” about the opportunity.
But he remembers that first meeting was “very tense.”
“No one wanted to say the wrong thing. No one wanted to be perceived as anything other than, I guess, what they wanted to portray,” he said. “It was a lot of silence waiting for the first person to say something.”
But someone did, and over time the conversation grew as the cohort met and read the books, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, and Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives by Kevin Jones and Jarvis J Williams. The pastors leaned in and listened and learned from each other.
And then, “it went from tension to tears on both sides,” Fontell recalled.
“Everybody comes with a certain prejudice or presumption of what the other thinks,” he explained. “Once we listened to each other, and we understood how each other felt with the whole race issue, I think the Holy Spirit moved on all of our hearts.”
As a result, there was a sorrow, he said, and there were some asking for forgiveness.
There was a lot of listening while discussing what they read, what they experienced growing up, and what they experienced in their churches. It was Spirit-led, and nothing was forced, he added.
Fontell said the first year was more of the “let’s get an understanding of the issue of race” in America and in the church.
“Once we read and discussed, we didn’t want the narrative to be “Oh, we just had a sit down and cried and had a Kumbaya,” he said. “We were determined not to be like in the past where people would just sit around, you talk, and okay, now you understand, I understand, and we just leave it at that.
“Once all of us in the room understood each other and understood that there is a problem in America and in the church regarding race, we wanted to see what does the gospel say about it? And then what could we do as agents of change?”
As part of the experience, the pastors and other guests visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which was an “eye-opening” experience, particularly for the Anglo pastors, Fontell said. The museum, through sights, sounds and story-telling, gave glimpses of the difficulties faced by Black people throughout history.
“The lesson that all of us understood was how depraved the human heart–not the physical heart, but the spiritual heart–is, how evil the heart is,” he said.
But it was some guests to the museum, a white family and/or group, some wearing MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats, that offered an impromptu lesson for the pastors. One of them engaged the family to ask their purpose for coming to museum. Was it for education or to make a statement?
“It was more that they wanted to make a political statement,” Fontell recounted, remembering the adults said they were there to “kind of agitate.”
“This was an eye-opener for all of us, that we need to keep our foot on the gas,” he said, noting how the whole experience, including the bus trips to and from the museum, served to bond the group together even more.
Fontell said the cohort identified a grid of things they could do to usher in change; namely, a “gospel-focused, urban service project” they could do together. This led to what is now called “Mansion Hope,” which ultimately seeks to be an ongoing presence of hope in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
As part of the effort, the pastors toured and prayed over Strawberry Mansion, a community whose schools are underserved, where residents have no walking access to fresh produce, and where there are drugs, crimes and other results of systemic poverty.
The pastors visited the area several times, sitting down with members of the community to discern how best they—and their churches—could help.
Each of the represented churches are “putting skin the game” by supporting the effort through finances and prayer, Fontell said, explaining that they see it as sharing the love of Jesus, not as charity.
They believed “Jesus would go to this area, and He would not only give them the gospel, but He would also seek to meet their physical needs,” Fontell said. “It’s not either/or, right? This is both, and so we’re doing both; we’re meeting the spiritual as well as some physical needs.”
Fontell added, “We have people from the community that we consult with and talk to. We don’t want to come in and project on them … We’re hearing from them to tell us what they need, and we seek to work together with them. It’s not a takeover kind of thing.”
Pointing to today’s racial climate and change, Fontell said each of the pastors are also attempting to help their church members be more aware of racial issues and change.
Is he more hopeful now that things will change?
Acknowledging he’s a glass-half-full kind of person anyway, his quick answer was, “Yes. I see in our cohort, and I see just how we interact and how we are sensitive, and we are willing to ask, and if we don’t know, we ask. Yes, and I see how for the past three and a half years, we’ve stayed the course.”
He credited BRN Executive Director Barry Whitworth with having “Holy Spirit courage.”
“He’s courageous to make Jesus famous!” He added, “He’s not just doing lip service. He’s all in, mind, body and spirit. So yeah, I have hope that if Jesus took 12 and turned the world around, why can’t the BRN?”
View full interview:
View bonus content:
In this second video, Fontell talks about a field trip the cohort took to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 10, 2020, 8:15 a.m. to include the bonus content.