by Jim Harnish
The church on Central Avenue
While speaking for the Georgia Pastors’ School a few weeks ago, I met a retired pastor and her husband who are natives of Fitzgerald, Georgia. They confirmed the story I had heard from Bishop Lawson Bryan.
Fitzgerald was founded in 1895 as a community for Civil War veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy. Streets on the east side of the city are named after Confederate ships and generals while streets on the west are named after Union ships and generals. Central Avenue runs through the middle of all of them.
And that’s where you’ll find Central United Methodist Church.
It was formed in 1939 when the Methodists in the North and South who had been divided since 1844 reunited to form The Methodist Church, which became The United Methodist Church in 1968.
The story reminded me of Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
“Christ is our peace … With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)
According to Paul, Central Avenue is right where we will find Jesus and it’s right where his followers belong.
Central Avenue isn’t Easy Street
I’m sure that life in Fitzgerald was not always easy. Simply naming the streets would not have been enough to heal the wounds that Civil War veterans still carried. There was every possibility that a former Yankee and a former Rebel who had seen each other on the battlefield might bump into each other on Central Avenue. But that was a risk the veterans who moved to Fitzgerald were willing to take.
It wasn’t easy for the Methodists, either. Forty-four years would pass after the founding of Fitzgerald before First Methodist Episcopal Church and Central Methodist Episcopal Church South would come together to form a new church. Another 29 years would pass before the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction which had maintained the separation of white and black congregations in our denomination. We still have work to do on that one!
In the metaphor, Central Avenue is not the “mushy middle.” It is not the lowest common denominator between opposing convictions. It takes more strength of character and depth of faith to reconcile divided people and “create one new person out of the two groups” than it does to stay in gated compounds where everyone thinks the way we think and from which we can lob verbal cannon balls at people on the opposite side of the street.
Reconciliation isn’t easy, but it is precisely the task to which we are called. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
Come to Central Avenue!
In 1844, Methodists in America were sadly a mirror image of the national polarization over slavery. Instead of demonstrating the power of reconciliation, we succumbed to the power of division.
The forces of polarization are again tearing our nation apart today. The same forces of division are at work within The United Methodist Church as some of our fellow Methodists make plans for separation if they don’t get their way.
Is it too bold to pray that this time around we will not repeat the painful history of 1844? Could “the people called Methodist” become a tangible witness to the reconciling love of God revealed at the cross? Might the Holy Spirit find a way to “create one new person out of the two groups, making peace”? Are we willing to be the church on Central Avenue? I’d say it’s a risk well worth taking!
This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.