COLUMBIA — People prayed from their seats in the main auditorium; they prayed from two overflow rooms and from the aisles in between.
Members of the massive congregation sang "Amazing Grace," some with their arms raised, others linking arms with their neighbors at The Crossing church's unity event Sunday evening.
Members from dozens of churches gathered to support a citywide attempt to bring together white and black communities in Columbia.
“If we are going to have reconciliation in the community it has to start in the most segregated hour on Sunday morning," said Verna Laboy, a member of Urban Empowerment Ministries . "This is the first time I’m participating in a community church unified celebration. It gives me hope."
The event was a product of the conversations that arose after African American pastors approached The Crossing's staff in December.
Several pastors used breakfast meetings over the course of a month to plan the citywide service.
“A lot of pastors thought that this (type of event) would be a good idea. We had thought about it for a number of years, but it rose to the top in light of last fall," said Keith Simon*, a senior teaching pastor at The Crossing . "I don’t think last fall’s issues caused this, but I think it made it a priority."
Simon was referring to a spate of fall protests at MU by members of Concerned Student 1950 and others who decried a climate of discrimination and racial inequity on campus. Their demonstrations and demands eventually led to the resignation of former UM System President Tim Wolfe and, in part, to a decision by then-MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to step down.
The service began with praise.
The Crossing’s worship leader, David A. Cover, observed the congregation.
“There is a face to our congregation. Tonight it is an unfamiliar face, and I love it,” Cover said.
The pastors broke into a panel discussion, where they talked about building bridges for the community.
"Come worship God and leave everything else outside the door," said Bishop Ron Webb, who had helped with a similar unity event in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
After the panel discussion, local law enforcement officers took the stage. The pastors collectively agreed that it was important to include the police in the conversation about unity.
The more than 1,400 people in attendance gave a standing ovation to Col. Bret Johnson, who spoke about bridging the gap in regards to law enforcement and the importance of honesty and transparency.
Everyone prayed, with arms extended, for God to lead Columbia and MU law enforcement in “grace and peace.”
The service continued with communion and multiple verses of “Amazing Grace.”
After a closing prayer, the crowd was dismissed, but many stuck around to talk to other members of the congregation and the pastors.
“It was great. It shows real hope for the community,” said attendee Lynn Acton.
Pastor Keith Simon also said he felt good about the event.
“It was a major success. The community showed up, and there was a spirit of unity,” he said.
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