Florida Church Merger Is More Than Black and White

Pastor H.B Charles Jr. of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, left, and Pastor Michael Clifford of Ridgewood Baptist Church.
Pastor H.B Charles Jr. of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, left, and Pastor Michael Clifford of Ridgewood Baptist Church.

With a sparkle in his eye, Michael Clifford places his palms together talking and emphatically spreads them apart to illustrate how the recent merger between Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park and Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville came together – through prayer that grew with spreading momentum.

“They [Ridgewood] told us exactly how they felt so we really prayed this whole thing through,” said Clifford, Ridgewood’s former head minister who now serves as Minister of Christian Education for Shiloh Church. “That’s why we felt so confident God wanted us to move forward and merge with Shiloh.”

This week, Shiloh kicked off one of its annual traditions. Prayer Emphasis Week is an intentional time to sit still, listen to God’s voice and pray for the community, families, the world and others who need to hear the good news of Christ. About 100 congregants turned in prayer cards during last weekend’s three services, many asking for prayer for the recent merger, which enters its third official week Jan. 18. Members are asked from page 15 to pray daily at 6 a.m. and attend prayer services, one of which will be held this Friday at 10 p.m. at the Orange Park campus on Blanding Boulevard.

In its first merged service in Orange Park, more than 700 congregants turned out for worship. On Jan. 11, about 650 attended. Although it may be too early to tell if the merger of the predominantlywhite and the predominantly-black Baptist churches will sustain going forward, Clifford remains confident that the new blended congregation will only grow in love. He said 87 percent of Ridgewood members approved the merger in the church’s final vote. “We feel this is a lighthouse for the Lord. We want to be a beacon for His people,” Clifford said. “The main thing was we did not want to lose this corner and this presence for the Lord.”

The merger began in mid-2014 when both churches made public plans to launch a new church start in Clay County. They were brought together by what Dan Beckwith – Shiloh Orange Park’s campus pastor – describes as “a third party.” As it turns out, the Jacksonville Baptist Association was looking to plant a new church in Clay County around the same time both Ridgewood and Shiloh were seeking to do the same thing. It was the Association that brought the two churches together.

“The Lord had to lead us because we didn’t know Shiloh,” Clifford said, to which Beckwith quickly responded, “And we didn’t know Ridgewood.” And then it began – fellowship, conversation and lots of prayer.

“We just sat down and talked and it went from there,” Clifford said. “This is the result of the Lord in momentum and the momentum is the catalyst that moves us.”

In the wake of at least two high profile racially-charged deaths, the merger of the two churches has become a mirror for good. The case in New York City in which Eric Garner died while in a choke hold by an NYPD officer and the Aug. 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo, serve as a weather vane in the ongoing debate about race in America. Both incidents involved a white officer and a black suspect and resulted in doubts and fears among both cultures.

“The societal and cultural problems with some of the race issues in our country right now basically drew a lot of attention to us that we did not anticipate,” said Beckwith, who has been on the Shiloh staff for five years.

Along with prayer, the two churches slowly worked to assimilate its members. Last fall, members from Jacksonville traveled to Orange Park and assisted in staging the church’s annual October fall festival.

Then came a November Unity Service where both congregations worshipped together at a special 4 p.m. service to bond and move forward.

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SOURCE: Clay Today
Eric Cravey

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