SOUDERTON, Pa. (BRN)– John Cope is the lead pastor at Keystone Fellowship, a nearly 19-year-old multi-site church with campuses in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, who is also one of 12 Baptist Resource Network pastors, some African American and some Anglo, who have locked arms to seek racial unity and healing.
When invited to participate in the racial reconciliation cohort nearly four years ago, Cope didn’t hesitate.
“I know Barry’s heart,” he said, referring to Barry Whitworth, executive director for the Baptist Resource Network. “Barry’s very passionate about unity and oneness” and gospel mission, he said, adding he also knew and valued the other participants, Hal Hopkins, Larry Anderson and Kyle Canty, among others.
He told Whitworth, “Barry, I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I’ve got a lot to learn. I hope I’m a good listener.” Admittedly, as a pastor, he knew he was a “talker” but he truly wanted to be the best listener he could be, he said.
Like the other participants, Cope said the first meeting was “tense.” He described the tension this way: “You’re trying to be wise at what you’re saying, and sometimes I think you’re almost afraid to say anything, and sometimes I think, out of wanting to be wise, you probably say things you shouldn’t say.”
Eventually, the pastors talked openly and honestly, and they listened to one another, but it was hard, he said.
“Not that there was any spiritual tension or hatred or anger or anything like that against one another, it’s just trying to understand,” he said. “It’s a storming phase, no matter what. Every group has to go through that.”
Cope said what “just ripped [him] the most” was when the cohort and guests visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum was crowded, and Cope found himself separated from the rest of group and in front of a particularly overwhelming exhibit.
He was viewing replicas of the boats—the ships—used to bring the slaves from Africa to America.
“You look at it and some of the other pictures and you just go, ‘You have got to be kidding! Did our nation really do all this?’ And because we try to erase it, we try to forget it. And so I just caught myself … by myself … praying, listening.”
He pauses, remembering.
“I’ve got to be honest. I don’t think I told the group this but probably after several hours, I left. I said I can’t handle any more of this. This just hurts. It’s painful.”
He said he didn’t want to just run from the pain but he felt he had seen enough to grasp, for the moment, and that was all he could handle for that day. Instead, he prayer walked around the National Capitol, the White House and other D.C. locations.
Over and over, he prayed, “Lord God, something’s gotta change. Something’s gotta change.”
Cope said the bus ride home was also very insightful as participants debriefed their individual experiences.
“I think that [trip] unified us, but it was a painful unifying,” he said. “To be honest with you, from a white guy’s perspective, it was embarrassing … it was embarrassing that our nation did this in that much of the foundation of our nation was built upon slavery!”
In addition to the museum visit, Cope said he was impacted by the groups’ reading of several books explaining Black history. He was struck to learn about so many overtly racist agendas; for example, how very few African Americans received GI loans for housing, preventing them from securing better foundations after returning from war.
“Just example after example. I never knew it was that bad systemically,” he said. “So I think after the African-American Museum trip, it just solidified it more” and brought some unity about “We can’t just do understanding! … What are we going to do?”
He said it was literally voiced, “Are we going to keep doing resolution after resolution and confessing sin? Are we ever going to come together and do something?”
The group really wanted to see change.
The “beautiful thing,” Cope said, was that group has turned into a larger group of pastors who have united together to do something together in the city, and not in an easy place.
They deliberately chose “a hard place,” an underserved community in Philadelphia called Strawberry Mansion.
Cope acknowledged there were “a lot of hard places in the city” but several of the Black pastors grew up near Strawberry Mansion, so he trusted them. “They know the area,” he stressed.
“Keystone’s in whatever it looks like,” he told the committed pastors. “We are in because I trust you. I trust what you guys want to accomplish. Barry, I trust you.”
He added, “And I think whatever happens, we believe God will do some great things together. But we know it’s not going to be easy.”
In addition to that shared focus, Keystone also partnered with some of these fellow African American churches to help distribute food in their neighborhoods during the pandemic.
“We want to keep the relationships going,” Cope said, saying that even though his church members live in the suburbs, they are still close enough and have a passion for the city.
His churches has done food drives, and they don’t just drop the food off, he said. “We want to partner with their people who are already at their church that are already doing this on a weekly basis.”
He points to the Apostle John for his example of “love,” which the New Testament writer uses 27-28 times. “It was just all about love, love, love; and if you know Christ, then you receive the seed of the Spirit, and we should have love.
“God is in the midst of this, and we need to put God’s eyes on and go.”
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