Ten strangers gathered in a well-appointed Woodstock home, brought together by seven dead men.
The strangers began their meeting with grace and a potluck dinner. Maybe sharing pineapple casserole, salad and ham would make it less awkward to talk about the reason the seven men died.
When the plates were cleaned and the tables cleared, the group retired to the family room. Aqua silk curtains framed a sunset through tall windows overlooking the small waterfall in the manicured backyard. Smooth gospel music played in the background. To further set a mood of welcome and ease, one of the hosts, Corliss Kinard, lit a couple of scented candles.
The AJC's RE:Race project is chronicling the demographic transformation sweeping Georgia. Today's article explores how people of faith confront racism when two diverse congregations take the difficult journey toward understanding. Why this story? Because racial comity and racial conflict are, to this day, among the most urgent challenges we face. And why now? Because, as these two churches have shown, it's imperative to deal with this legacy head on. Please join the conversation. Follow our coverage at myajc.com/race. On that page you'll find a link to a page where you can share your experience of race in Georgia.
The group formed a rough circle, some settling on couches, others sinking onto oversized chairs. Smiles were hesitant. The hard conversation was to come.
Melvin Kinard sat next to his 49-year-old wife in front of their massive hearth and read from the discussion guide. His voice was easy and authoritative, a product of 22 years as a naval officer. Now, at 58, he was retired and so was his wife, who’d been a naval officer just a few months longer than he had been.
“We are here to learn and to connect, not to prove a point or demand affirmation,” Kinard read. “Don’t run away if you feel overwhelmed or offended. Stay engaged, the healing is not only for each of us, it is for the body of Christ.”
But they’d all signed up for this, hadn’t they, to talk about something most people avoid discussing in mixed company or don’t consider at all.
Six whites, three African-Americans, including the Kinards and Latysha Cameron, and one Chinese-American. On paper, without names and faces, their similarities were unremarkable: all parents, all solidly middle class, all Christians. Yet, each in his or her own way had been affected by race. Preconceived notions, stereotypes and prejudices had shaped them in ways obvious and unacknowledged.
Now, because of the dead men, the strangers were confronting America’s permanent stain.
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers — Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa — were killed within three days of each other last July. Sterling was a black man killed by a white one. Castile was a black man killed by a Latino. The white and Latino Dallas officers were killed by a black man claiming to avenge the deaths of black men killed by white police officers.
Their deaths sparked protests across the country and intensified an unending debate over policing and race. The nation was transfixed by the convulsion, but different people saw different things. The color of their skin and their experience in it shaped their view. Which victims deserved sympathy? Which ones had been casualties of stereotypes, supremacy, misconceptions and lies? Which ones “brought it on themselves”? The summer was thick with questions.
THE REV. LEE JENKINS: Pastor of Eagles Nest Church, a predominantly black congregation in Roswell that reached out to white churches after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
LISA HARDING: Roswell resident who sought out an African-American perspective to help her deal with the killing of Castile, but also to help her and her family raise their adopted African-born sons.
THE REV. MATT MILLER: Pastor of the predominantly white Roswell Community Church who worked closely with Lee Jenkins toward racial reconciliation.
CORLISS KINARD: She and her husband, Melvin, opened their Woodstock home to a meeting of 10 people of different races who were seeking a better understanding of one another.
MELVIN KINARD: A 22-year Navy veteran who along with his wife, Corliss, hosted one of the first small group sessions of the Conversations series.
STEPHEN GILKENSON: A member of an Alpharetta church who, through a friend, joined in the reconciliation effort in its early stages. Gilkenson had only listened to conservative media until the killing of Philando Castile.
MARY LOUISE GILKENSON: As a Chinese American, she was among the handful of people in the overall "Conversations" project who was neither black nor white. She and her husband, Stephen, have been lay people at an Alpharetta mega church for decades.
MIKE MOSS: A white member of Roswell Community Church who took part in the reconciliation program with his wife, Denise. He grew up in East Point as it was shifting from white to black.
DENISE MOSS: Also member of Roswell Community Church. Moss, also grew up in East Point as its demographics shifted. Nevertheless, she and her husband, Mike, grew up in and have always had a diverse group of friends and acquaintances.
At the same time, another disturbance, internal and intense, vibrated through two evangelical congregations in Roswell, one black, one white. It began with a black pastor who befriended a stranger, both of them shaken by the killings. With goodwill but much discomfort, they began a conversation. In seven months the two had become 200, almost all of them members at either Eagles Nest Church or Roswell Community Church.
Earlier this year, the two congregations broke into small groups to try to talk about the nation’s ugly racial history and their own biases with something approaching candor. Anything more than that would be a boon. Their goal was elusive, if for no other reason than the conversation was framed in black and white. The nation is far more diverse than the old, vexing dichotomy. But it’s where they agreed to start.
So, in the Kinard family room in Woodstock, the 10 people stepped out on faith, unsure where the path would lead.
The things we assume about other races
More than an hour in and the group had only reached question No. 2 on the discussion guide. The first question was an icebreaker about their impressions of the movie “Selma,” which they’d been required to watch. In tones more cautious than animated, they talked about the movie’s themes of courage, resiliency and faith and agreed it was an essential American story. But the mood in the Kinard family room remained tentative.
Then came the second question: “Tell a story about a time someone of another culture assumed something about your culture and it caused you harm.”
Denise Moss, 57, looked at nothing in particular, trying to decide whether this was a white person’s question to unpack. She’d committed to listening and learning from the black people in the room. But the discussion guide said to be vulnerable, so she decided to plunge ahead.
She grew up in East Point in the 1970s, as white flight swept the suburb. Moss was in her high school typing class ready to test her speed. But first, the teacher had a question: Did Moss’ family have a housekeeper? “Yes, ma’am,” Moss said. Was that housekeeper black, the teacher asked. “Yes, ma’am.” Even now, in the Kinards’ family room, Moss’ face flushed at the memory. How the teacher needled her, asking whether she thought having black help made her better than the black students. The shame was still sharp.
People in the family room seemed unsure of how to respond. Had the question about assumptions about another race been only for the black people in the room?
As they spoke, the question morphed into something more fraught: talk about assumptions you have of another culture.
For Myles Lorenzen, also a Navy veteran, this was the second time in his life he’d been in a black person’s home. He chose his words carefully, speaking to the three African-Americans in the group. He was reflecting what he’d heard through the years but didn’t necessarily believe.
“That you can’t control your emotions,” said Lorenzen.
Stephen Gilkenson, an executive recruiter and another Navy veteran, saw an opening. He’d known black people casually but none was in his intimate circle of friends. Now, as a white guy having his own racial epiphanies after the Castile killing, he was ready to push on.
“Yeah. If a black person gets angry, it’s never perceived well. But if I get angry, other white people pretty much get over it,” Gilkenson said.
Then he confessed that at times in his life, he’d been the white guy wondering why black people were so animated. So loud. So angry all the time. When other white people said similar things he never challenged them.
“I guess I wanted to be liked,” Gilkenson said.
“Why do you guys look at us in that manner that we need to have self-control all the time?” said Corliss Kinard.
She was annoyed and couldn’t cloak it.
“I think it’s just fear,” Gilkenson said.
Nobody asked him of what.
‘Not as an insult, but as an adjective’
The conversation at the Kinards’ had roots in one particular death.
Castile’s killing rattled Lisa Harding. Her family had lived in Roswell for four years. But for the prior 23 years, home was a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. She knew the town where Castile had been shot.
In the aftermath of Castile’s shooting, she thought back to the life her family built in the Twin Cities and examined what led her to this moment.
The white evangelical church she attended in Minneapolis stressed caring for orphans. Even though Harding had been a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled her kids, with her husband’s salary as a pilot they could afford an adoption. Their five older kids were leaving the nest. Bedrooms were opening up.
Two little Ugandan boys joined their family in 2008. The Hardings believed adoption was an act of love, and of obedience to Scripture. Above all they felt joy at bringing Philip and Zachary home. Lisa Harding didn’t see their rich brown skin, only their needs. In her mind, she was colorblind.
Harding prepared to mother her new sons by reading about the black experience. Near the top of the book stack was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Page by page, she read it with the same academic detachment she would have given “The Federalist Papers.”
“They could not have gotten a more ill-equipped mother,” Harding said.
She’d grown up mainly in Peachtree City, the daughter of an airline pilot in what was called the “airline ghetto,” a neighborhood of commercial pilots. A handful of black kids attended her private school; unless they were athletes, they usually were excluded and ignored. Harding didn’t give them a second thought.
Her extended family were not cross-burning racists, she said, but something perhaps more common and insidious.
“The n-word was used not as an insult, but as an adjective,” Harding said. “For example, ‘There’s a nigger church down the road.’”
She’d been born on the cusp of the baby boom and Generation X. Yet, she had never been in a black person’s house. She had no black friends. Nearly everyone she associated with was like her: from virtually all-white, well-to-do environments. It’s not that she feared people of color, she simply did not see them as important to her life.
“There’s no other way to say it other than I grew up straight-up racist,” Harding said. “It was polite. It was Southern. It wasn’t venomous, but it was straight-up racist. White privilege maximized.”
When she and her husband moved in 1989 to the Twin Cities, one of the whitest areas of the country, that experience was amplified. The neighborhoods where they lived, the stores where she shopped. The only time she saw people of color in any numbers was when she drove through downtown or south Minneapolis. Or if she turned on the television.
But it was getting harder to be oblivious. Stories about black men who’d either been assaulted or killed by the police made regular news. Each time her reaction was the same.
“’Well, we need the whole story,’” Harding said. “I thought, ‘What are all the black people complaining about?’”
From time to time, the world reminded her that blackness was not an abstraction. The week her family moved to Roswell, a neighbor came to welcome them. The woman was warm and asked Harding where her kids would go to school. Harding told her the name of Philip’s local public school.
“Oh, you’re going to love that school,” Harding remembers her saying. “It’s lily white, so you don’t have to worry about any of that diversity stuff.”
Harding did the calculus of disclosure in her head as the woman rattled on: now or later? She chose now. The youngest Hardings were little black boys, she told the woman. The woman paused, then kept on talking. Harding never heard an apology, but the neighbor wished them well.
During the adoption process they’d been counseled on how the world would see their multiracial family. Still, that hadn’t prepared them for judgments. There were the friends who told Harding she shouldn’t worry about the boys, because with two white parents and five white brothers and sisters, they’d “be white anyway.” Or the black couple in the hardware store who wondered out loud within earshot of the boys what the Hardings were doing with two black kids.
Then came Castile. In horror, she watched him bleed out not far from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, where every summer her family rode the Ferris wheel and ate mini-doughnuts. She saw white Minnesotans talking about how beloved he’d been at the school where he worked. Through tears they spoke of his dedication to the kids he served in the cafeteria each day and about his ambition. Listening to interviews with Castile’s mother, Harding recognized a mother’s agony.
Harding’s two youngest sons were Ugandan by birth, but in America their blackness carried a different weight. Very clearly, she imagined them in the front seat of a car like Castile’s, blood saturating their shirts from bullet wounds.
“If love was enough, they’d be fine, but it was bigger than that,” Harding said.
African-American parents were on social media and television describing how they advised their children to behave if stopped by police. It hadn’t occurred to Harding to give any of her children that talk. She’d told her biological kids to seek out the police if they were in trouble because cops were there to help them.
Now she questioned everything. She was 50 and she didn’t have one African-American friend to ask: What do you think of all this? What is the world like for you?
For perhaps the first time, she was beginning to see herself as a white woman who’d moved through the world with privilege and entitlement.
“My racial education was watching ‘Remember the Titans,’ ‘The Help’ and ‘The Butler,’” she said.
In times of trouble her family turned to the church. And yet, not once had she heard a sermon about race from the pulpit. She wasn’t sure what to do.
Looking back on it now, she laughs at her decision.
“I Googled, ‘Black church in Roswell, Georgia,’” Harding said. “Eagles Nest was the first one that came up and I said, ‘Well, that’s where I’m going tomorrow.’”
The next morning, she left her boys at home and headed to the church. This was something she had to face alone.
‘I need a friend.’ ‘You’ve got one.’
Pastor Lee Jenkins of Eagles Nest Church could not contain his rage. He’d asked God to purge it from him, but the fury remained. He’d watched the video of Castile dying. Another one, he thought. Then the Dallas officers were killed.
Jenkins knew what his sermon would be that Sunday and who needed to hear it.
He invited the entire Roswell police force to worship with his congregation. The chief showed up. Jenkins welcomed him, prayed over him, listened to him, pledged to be his friend.
But the pastor was frank. The words rushed out as he preached a sermon full of uncomfortable truths about what it is to move through America as a black person.
There were stories from his own life, about driving through Buckhead and being stopped by police who wanted to know where he had gotten such a nice car. About being followed in stores or stopped by a white neighbor who wanted to know why Jenkins was in the neighborhood.
His members knew those indignities well. The assumption that a tall black man with an athletic build must play sports rather than be a military veteran, like Melvin Kinard. Or that a black woman having lunch with her kids must be a single mom with baby daddies rather than a stay-at-home mom with a working husband.
Later, as Jenkins stepped back into the pulpit for the late-morning service, he saw a room full of familiar faces. Mixed in were a few unfamiliar white ones. Again, Jenkins did not temper his message.
After he’d finished, he and the church elders went into the lobby to shake hands and bid everyone a good week in the name of the Lord. Harding approached him. He asked her what had brought her to his church. She gathered her courage, not sure what to expect. She told him she was a mom of two African-born boys and she realized she didn’t know how to raise them to become black men, let alone protect them.
“I need a friend,” she recalls telling him.
Jenkins didn’t miss a beat: “Well, you’ve got one.”
The only black people she knew were the ones she’d adopted.
Black people, talk; white people, listen
Over the next several months, Jenkins, his wife, Martica, and pastor-in-training Cameron Friend met with the Harding family. The ground rules were set by Jenkins. The black people in the room would teach some black history and share what it was like being African-American from day to day — the slights, the aggressions, but also the joys and triumphs. The Hardings were there to listen, not offer counter-narratives, or “yeah, but.” Challenges could come later, after a bond of trust took hold and strengthened.
Like most African-Americans, the Jenkins’ lives had been entangled with white people’s lives. In employment, housing, education. In the films and TV shows they watched. At the doctor’s office, on vacation, at the grocery, shopping for clothes or a new car. They had to engage with white people to survive and get ahead. Being on the outside looking in was a way of life.
Not so for the Hardings or many people in their congregation.
Harding admits the first session was hard. When Jenkins described what it was like for him growing up in Atlanta, it was as though they’d been reared on different planets. Or as though he’d been one of the black kids at her private school.
Yet, Jenkins was insistent they work on establishing a genuine friendship, not just talk about race all the time. So, for the first time, the Hardings went to dinner with a black family. They found they had much in common with the Jenkinses — they worried about their children’s future, were concerned about how to be better Christians, and liked football. At least, Lisa Harding tolerated it.
The need for her to hear “the whole story” before deciding whether to be compassionate toward a black person began to recede. A desire to understand rose in its place. And one day it hit her: “White people have to realize we’re not the only ones on the planet,” she said. “If I was black, I’d be so done with white people.”
At the same time, Jenkins was meeting with pastors from North Fulton churches at Eagles Nest for a series of discussions about race. He’d invited 20. Only a handful showed up. It was supposed to be a time of prayer and learning with Jenkins leading the discussion. He was adamant the series take place in his church. The white pastors needed to know what it was like to be in a black sanctuary and be led by a black man. Instead, it was a different sort of lesson.
“Their ignorance about racial and social justice, their lack of experience with authentic cross-racial relationships, their lack of compassion for black victims of police violence — Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner — it was as if they were road kill,” Jenkins said. “I was just discouraged.”
If video of a man’s death didn’t do it, he wondered, what would it take to change the way people of faith saw their fellow man?
‘Listen to us. Believe us. Befriend us.’
Matt Miller watched the coverage of the seven men’s deaths. He lamented what was happening to the country. He thought of the grieving families. Standing in his pulpit at Roswell Community Church that Sunday, none of that made it into his sermon. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. It wasn’t that it wasn’t tragic. He just didn’t know what to say to his predominantly white congregation. So, he said nothing and began Holy Communion.
One by one, members took in the blessing of wafers and wine. A regular worshipper approached the altar, in tears, not an unusual sight during the sacrament. The pain on her face was deep. Just before he offered her the body of Christ, she looked him in the eyes.
“’I can’t believe that we’re not going to say anything about what happened this week,’” Miller recalls her saying. “’My heart is breaking.’”
Miller knew why. Sterling. Castile. Dallas. For the next week he turned the episode over in his mind. Why hadn’t he said something? As a Christian minister, wasn’t it his duty to build a bridge? Instead, he’d done what many did in the days after the shootings. Absolutely nothing.
He was a missionary’s kid who’d grown up, in part, in Guadeloupe. He’d been the only white kid in his elementary school classes. Most of his friends were black. Even after his family moved to Paris, he made friends easily with French-Caribbean immigrants.
When he was 15, his family moved to Milton, Ga. American race relations were wholly different. Miller tried to click with African-American kids, but they showed little interest. In time, his social circle became all white. As the years went by, so did the rest of his life.
So, the following Sunday, a week after the killings, Miller gave his first sermon about race. He began with a confession: he had no black friends. It was no one’s fault but his own, he told the congregation. Most of them had the luxury of not thinking about race, too, but no longer.
“For the first time, it was like, ‘This can’t be brushed by,’” Miller said.
But how to address it, he hadn’t a clue.
A parishioner approached him not long after service. Lisa Harding told him she knew of another minister, just 2 miles away, who was more troubled by the shootings. She introduced them.
Over the summer, while he was meeting with the Hardings, Jenkins led Miller and a few other white pastors and lay people, including Stephen Gilkenson, through a curriculum on race and black history. He asked Miller if he’d be interested in involving his church.
The two flocks worshipped together on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Eagles Nest. So many people showed up, they overflowed into the lobby. Jenkins preached about the power of unity. And when the congregation took Communion, Miller offered the blood and body of Christ.
“Conversations” launched in February at Eagles Nest with 200 people from the two churches. But the room wasn’t as diverse as expected. For every seven white people at a table, there were about three black people. Jenkins was disappointed.
When he asked a few of his members, some were evasive, saying they were already too busy. Others were blunt: They worked with white people every day and had no interest in using their off time to teach them what it was like to be black. Let them learn on their own.
The group of 200 broke into smaller groups. They would meet over three months, first at a black home, then at a white one, before coming back to Eagles Nest for a final session. Their charge, written by Jenkins, was crisply stated, though not easily executed: “Listen to us. Believe us. Empathize with us. Befriend us. Stand up for us.”
Which is how 1o people wound up in Corliss and Melvin Kinard’s family room that Saturday night in March struggling to follow the mandate.
‘I thought we’d moved past that’
Their first meeting went on for four hours.
Every 30 minutes or so, one of them would walk up to the line and push with a statement meant to provoke, hoping it didn’t sting.
Black people always have to work harder, longer and better than white people just to be thought of as good enough, Melvin Kinard said. He stated it as fact, confident in his truth. The other black people in the room nodded in agreement. Latysha Cameron talked about how young black children in schools were labeled troublemakers and disciplined at higher rates than white children. The Kinards, who’d been restaurant franchise owners, relayed the surprise on the faces of white customers when the couple identified themselves as the people who ran the place.
Mary Louise Gilkenson was bewildered. She’d seen progress in her lifetime. Given the civil rights movement and all the legislation passed, she was surprised the relatively affluent African-Americans in the room felt they had to prove themselves at every turn. Her understanding of the world had failed her.
Rebecca Anderson was surprised, too. Years ago, as a human resources officer, she was in charge of diversity training at a manufacturing firm. In 2017, she thought, the big battles had been fought and won.
“I just thought we’d moved past that,” she said.
To a person, the brown faces in the den were as still as stone.
“I can see there’s real pain for the black people in the room,” said Mike Moss.
He and his wife, Denise, lived in Milton but grew up in East Point just as it was shifting from white to black. Many white families fled. Theirs didn’t, at least not immediately. They’d had black friends and co-workers. Their children had a diverse group of friends.
Denise Moss had been an extra in one of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” movies. Yet, she knew she’d clutched her purse before when a black man walked by. And her husband had heard his share of racist jokes, which made him uncomfortable.
“If it was all white people in the room and somebody said something a little racist, I might laugh a little and say under my breath, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know about all of that,’” Mike Moss said. “But now, dadgummit, I’m gonna say something!”
Corliss Kinard looked at the floor, her gaze rising as it settled on Moss.
“Sometimes, we don’t receive you as being caring,” Corliss Kinard said. “I see white people as not being genuine because you’ve not walked in our shoes because of white privilege.”
With that, Steve Gilkenson saw another opening.
“How does that make you feel when you hear ‘white privilege?’” he asked Moss.
“Right now I’m having my world rocked,” Moss said.
Gilkenson asked again. He was beginning to know what it meant. Like Harding, last summer woke him to another reality. And he couldn’t have been a more unlikely person.
The conservative media landscape was his playground. O’Reilly. Hannity. Limbaugh. He listened to them all. But on July 6, he was flipping through channels and came across other networks doing early profiles of Castile. Hard worker. Working class. Admired. And Gilkenson kept looking at video of that young man taking his last breaths as his girlfriend and her young daughter watched him die. The woman’s composure, the child’s tiny voice trying to comfort her mother stirred something in Gilkenson.
He hadn’t felt this when Trayvon Martin was killed. Back then he felt ambivalence.
In Gilkenson’s regular media lineup, Castile was portrayed as a guy who’d been routinely stopped by the cops. Talking heads said he might have had a marijuana arrest.
“They were immediately trying to criminalize him,” Gilkenson said.
His anger surprised him.
“I had a transformation,” Gilkenson said.
So when a friend invited him to be part of a small group last fall with Pastor Jenkins, Gilkenson, who attends North Point Community Church with his wife, saw it as a chance to process what he’d been struggling with since Castile’s death. Before then, he’d been arguing with people about it on Facebook.
Now, here he was with a group of people all listening intently, sometimes laughing nervously, as they tried to get closer to something that looked like progress.
Even now, Gilkenson said, his closest friends didn’t include an African-American. It was never intentional, it was just the way his life had evolved.
Melvin Kinard smiled.
“We don’t have a lot of white friends, either,” he said.
And so, a few weeks later, progress looked like this: The Kinards and the Gilkensons had dinner together at a restaurant. As they ate they talked about their children, their jobs, their plans. By the end of the meal they each thought they might be on a path to friendship.
‘We’re actually living life together’
Their group met again the following month at the Andersons’ house in a pristine Woodstock cul de sac. Denise Moss brought gift bags for all the women. They went through the same ritual. Eric Anderson led with a prayer. Mike Moss and Stephen Gilkenson tangled over white privilege.
Melvin revealed he had dated a young Romanian woman early in his Navy career, but broke up with her at the pleading of his mother. She feared they’d both be harmed or killed if they ever came back to visit Melvin’s Mississippi hometown.
The Andersons confessed that they’d said nothing when immediate family members said derogatory things about black people. They didn’t like the ugliness, but they hadn’t wanted to start a family fight.
The discussion guide for this session asked them to explore tired ideas one race believed about another.
Some truths were revealed: white people’s lives are not problem-free; all black women are not angry.
Mike Moss had scribbled some ideas he knew some people of color had about whites: white people think they’re better than everybody else; white people have no empathy, no souls.
“Is it true?” Melvin Kinard asked Mike Moss.
Moss looked up at Kinard. His eyes narrowed above his reading glasses. The room fell silent. He blinked rapid fire. After some uncomfortable seconds, Moss said simply, no, it wasn’t true.
Later, back in his own home, Kinard would say he’d been deliberately provocative. He liked Moss. Thought they could maybe hang out. But to Kinard, the conversation had become too safe. Corliss agreed. Too many platitudes. By now, they were about three months into this process and it felt as though the group was going in circles, never burrowing below the first few layers of truth.
If they were to get to anything genuine the conversation would have to penetrate. It might even have to hurt a bit.
As the evening wore on, at the Anderson’s they all agreed on one thing. They were tired of talking about race. The next time they got together, they wanted it to be over hamburgers on the grill, pie night at O’Charleys, or maybe on a bike ride.
“Where we’re actually living life together,” said Mary Louise Gilkenson.
‘I don’t believe I got the truth’
Corliss Kinard missed the last meeting at the Andersons’ because she’d been sick. For weeks she’d been thinking about the whole experience. Something wasn’t right.
Now, as they all sat at a table for the final meeting at Eagles Nest in May, she decided it was time to speak her piece. Nearly all of the original 200 participants gathered at large tables to review what they’d learned from one another. Some declared they were now friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Corliss believed in the Lord, but she had little patience with euphemism and evasion. If this experience were to have any meaning, any chance of growing past this experiment, she could not hold back.
“We have all contributed to prejudices and biases, and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that,” she said to her group. “I don’t believe I got the truth from everybody at this table. To say, ‘I didn’t know or I didn’t participate,’ that’s a lie. We all have participated in causing a lot of pain. It’s about relationships and exposure, but if we don’t communicate and be real, then this was just a conversation.”
Everyone stared at her.
Mike Moss gathered himself.
“That’s what I seek too, that raw realness,” he said.
Stephen Gilkenson smiled.
Moss said, “I think it’s more the proper thing for our race to listen first, then offer our thoughts because our race has been the transgressor. Our inaction, our silence on certain things is something we have to deal with. Most of us are guilty of a lack of empathy.”
He wanted to talk about what it was really like when East Point shifted from white to black. How neighbors told each other to sell before they were the only whites left and property values fell. How they fled to Newnan and Fayetteville. But he wasn’t sure how to begin. At least not yet.
His wife picked up where he left off.
“To be vulnerable is scary, it’s scary,” she said. “It takes a lot to take those walls down. It takes time. I don’t want this to be a surface thing.”
“We don’t know each other that well, and it takes time,” Corliss said, softly.
They had talked and listened and ruminated. But were they any closer to understanding than when they began in February?
As if they’d heard what was going on at the back table with Moss, Kinard, Gilkenson and the rest of their pack, Pastor Jenkins and Pastor Miller reminded everyone they had a choice. They could shake hands with their new acquaintances and wish them well, or they could make the more difficult choice and stick with it.
The strangers in the back of the room looked at one another. Then they started talking about their calendars. Summer was coming and they planned to spend at least a little of it together.
How we got the story
Writer Rosalind Bentley had covered a Confederate flag incident involving Eagles Nest Church last year. In January, the church contacted her about a racial reconciliation project Pastor Lee Jenkins was starting that grew out of the flag incident and then gained urgency with the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the Dallas police officers. Over three months, Bentley attended several of the group meetings among members, primarily, of Eagles Nest and Roswell Community Church. She also did multiple one-on-one interviews with participants to learn more about their personal experiences with race.
Portrait photos by Curtis Compton. Videography by Erica Hernandez.