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Merged New Jersey Churches on Mission to Heal Racial Divide

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When pastors Jonathan Leath and George Bowen decided to merge their congregations they were on a mission to break down barriers and unite people.

It wouldn't be easy, and both lost congregants along the way, but they persevered. Now, the community will come together as their merged Converge Church will celebrate its one-year anniversary, a testament to what both pastors believe is following the truth of the Gospel.

"In a divided society — we are a divided society, it's just nonsense to gloss over that — it seems to me that only the church can model unity ... it hasn't really done that," said Bowen, who led Maranatha Christian Fellowship at its facility along Lenola Road for over 30 years before the merger.

Bowen and Leath, who was the pastor of Destiny Church, said they were inspired after the election of President Donald Trump, and what they saw as a growing divide among people.

In 2018, Leath, after 12 years of moving his congregation from space to space to worship, was finally in the process of securing his church its own building. At the time, his church met in space provided by Maranatha Christian Fellowship.

In the same building, Leath and Bowen began to discuss a different solution to Destiny's lack of a permanent home and the larger issues they were seeing in the nation. Trump's election had divided the country, the men said. What if they worked together to try and heal that divide?

In 2018, their plan was realized with the merging of Destiny Church — a primarily black congregation — and Maranatha Christian Fellowship — a primarily white congregation — into Converge Church.

"There was some outrage, some anger, and I understand it," Leath said. "I understand that with the climate that was created, a lot of people felt like, 'Why do we need to do this?'"

Despite the initial resistance to the idea — both churches lost some parishioners when it was announced they would be merging — the pastors believe that Converge Church is now as strong as their individual churches could ever be on their own.

According to both Bowen and Leath, the merging of black and white churches is not that uncommon in recent years, but they question if they really walk the walk.

"I hear a lot of white pastors say their churches are multi-cultural, and they are not," Leath said. "Because they may have black or other people of color attending their churches, but their church does not express the cultural significance that those people bring to their congregation."

For Leath and Bowen, to truly follow in Jesus Christ's footsteps, congregations need to truly be uncomfortable with the status quo.

"The Body of Christ means that we have to be uncomfortable with each other, and uncomfortable with the sense the Gospel causes me to look past my own personal preference to say you are my brother," Leath said.

In addition to embracing their entire congregation, what also makes the non-denominational Converge Church different is that both Bowen and Leath share pastoral duties.

"This is two people coming together and actually doing life together. If we can't do life together like that like Jesus said and testified in the truth of the Gospel ... then we're hypocrites. We've compromised everything that we say we do believe — mainly Christ."

After a year of the congregations getting to know each other, building relationships and Leath earning the respect of a much larger congregation — Maranatha had around 310 parishioners at the time of the merger, Destiny had around 70 — Bowen and Leath said that now the church's leadership will sit down and figure out what direction they want to take Converge.

Leath said some changes that the leadership is planning for the next year are holding only one worship service to promote more unity among its congregation — it currently holds two on Sundays — focusing more on mission work, working on recruiting new worshipers and streamlining its ministries.

Converge Church's anniversary celebration will be held Sunday Sept. 22 at 10 a.m.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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