Religion

Pastors take One Step closer to Christ through interracial worship

The Rev. Baxter Hurley and the Rev. Bruce Burns on the steps of One Step at Ingleside, home to the collaborative gatherings the two pastors and their congregations have begun to foster multiracial worship and fellowship.
The Rev. Baxter Hurley and the Rev. Bruce Burns on the steps of One Step at Ingleside, home to the collaborative gatherings the two pastors and their congregations have begun to foster multiracial worship and fellowship. Special to The Telegraph

“The name ‘One Step’ came early on when Baxter Hurley and I were having lunch downtown and talking about what we wanted to do,” said Bruce Burns. “Our wives were with us — it was the first time they’d seen the two of us interact together. I think they thought we might be dangerous together.”

The Rev. Bruce Burns and the Rev. Baxter Hurley are founders and co-pastors of One Step at Ingleside, a new once-a-month interracial worship collaboration.

(The Rev. Bruce Burns) came up with it and said it was because every step we take is one step further away from Christ or one step closer to Christ, and one step further away from racial reconciliation or once step closer to racial reconciliation.

The Rev. Baxter Hurley

The two said the monthly get-together is an important side project for them alongside their full-time work as senior pastors at congregations representing different denominations: Burns is pastor at Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church on Pio Nono Avenue and Hurley pastors Forest Hills United Methodist Church (UMC) on Forest Hill Road.

The CME congregation is predominantly black; the UMC predominantly white.

Together, the two ministers have 50-plus years of successful service in their denominations.

“I think our wives thought we were dangerous because we definitely egg each other on spiritually and recreationally,” Hurley said. “Neither of us is much good at sitting still and in our spare time we’re both admitted adrenalin junkies, or at least we were in our younger days. For me it was a lot of motorcycles and rock climbing. Bruce was a high school wrestler with Olympic aspirations and I know he enjoys scuba diving and night diving. I guess we’ve both leaned toward adventure.”

Reverently, Burns and Hurley consider One Step an adventure — an adventure, an experiment and an opportunity for interracial, intercultural and interdenominational worship beyond either’s routine experience.

They said they hope One Step will be a relational bridge between their own congregations and for others in the wider community.

They’re also hopeful it might result in a new and vibrant congregation that’s blind to racial bias.

The two laugh when talking about the trouble their wives fear they might get into recreationally as friends, but when it comes to their wild ideas about One Step and what it could mean to Macon, they keep the broad smiles but get much more serious.

“I do hope Baxter and I and One Step are dangerous to things that keep people at odds, especially skin color,” Burns said. “We definitely believe God can use it to make a difference. It may take a lot of small steps but it can happen — it will happen. We’re committed to it.”

Hurley said he finds the fellowship’s name fitting.

“Bruce came up with it and said it was because every step we take is one step further away from Christ or one step closer to Christ, and one step further away from racial reconciliation or once step closer to racial reconciliation,” he said. “I thought, ‘Perfect. That’s it.’ ”

Though they had met but didn’t really know each other, Hurley said he and Burns were both individually thinking about something like One Step. He said they were each waiting for the right God-given opportunity, then things started happening to make the project possible.

Hurley said another Macon UMC congregation, Ingleside United Methodist Church, shut its doors in June 2016 making a space for the venture available.

“The congregation had dwindled and it was decided it should close,” he said. “I floated the idea that it would be bad and show lack of vision to put a For Sale sign out front. I said we, Forest Hill, could take the building. The facility itself is self-sustaining through rentals. It serves several prayer groups and is home to Macon’s Veritas Classical School, things like that. I saw it as God’s provision. Bruce and I met again and God got us talking more and things really cranked up. We clicked.”

Hurley said he purposefully hadn’t made concrete plans for what such a gathering would look like, but kept it “a blank slate.” The reason, he said, was because he didn’t want God to bring someone to help him fulfill his own vision, but someone who would be a true collaborator with him.

Once they started talking, the two said a five-minute conversation turned into 20-minute ones then into three-hour lunches then even more time talking, praying and planning together.

And along the way it also turned into just hanging out.

“It’s interesting how at the same time One Step began developing, our families started building relationships together,” Burns said. “Interesting things started happening, like once we were all having dinner together my daughter said to me, ‘You know, you’re my second favorite preacher now.’ I asked her, ‘Why second?’ And she tilted her head toward Baxter. I’m OK with that.”

One Step at Ingleside will have its third meeting on Sunday at 6 p.m. at its Ridge Avenue location. Burns and Hurley said the old Ingleside UMC sign is still out front because in veering away from tradition to explore new relational ground they haven’t seen a sign change as a priority.

Practically speaking, Burns said One Step offers many unique features including how he and Hurley divide preaching duties: they share it each time One Step meets. He said within the allotted timeframe, one will begin the sermon and the other end it.

“One of us will present the scriptural, exegetical foundation and the other the practical application,” he said. “All within the normal time.”

The two said One Step worship mixes traditional and modern styles and throws in other styles from country rock to jazz. Dress is casual and the pastors often tend toward T-shirts and jeans. They’ve taken to wearing green Converse shoes, which have become something of a One Step trademark.

And there’s food. From the beginning, both said fellowship over meals was seen as a meaningful, important aspect of gatherings. They said that’s probably the reason no one has been offended by the glass-door refrigerator they put at the back of the sanctuary to store cold drinks.

Those who have attended — and there were 200 or so at the first One Step service — were primarily from the pastor’s home congregations though some came from nearby neighborhoods and others from the wider Macon community.

“What we’re doing is definitely uncharted, out-of-the box work for both of us,” Hurley said. “I think our careers show that through depending on the Holy Spirit, we each can be successful leading churches in our denominations. But this, this is something else. Honestly, aside from the good it’s doing among those who come to One Step, God has used it to birth a new passion in me as I serve at my own church. Others have noticed and commented. Trusting God at this different level outside my routine has been refreshing and Bruce has said similar things.”

The two said the joy in seeing their members attend isn’t just that they’ve shown up, but that they’ve embraced the concept and not brought segregation with them.

“There hasn’t been a sense of, ‘this is the Forest Hill side and that’s the Bethel group over there,’ ” Hurley said. “It’s really been an occasion to mingle and embrace one another — and really mean it.”

Both said response to One Step has been generally positive in their congregations — even among those who don’t attend.

Hurley said his church has historically been outward focused, believing assembling together was an opportunity to prepare and to be nourished for service outside the church. Burns said some in his church have even asked him how they could unburden him of some routine Bethel tasks to make sure he can continue One Step projects.

“Fortunately,” Hurley said, “since the facility is self-sustaining, where the money comes from for it hasn’t been an issue at all. It’s all about people and purpose. There is oversight for offerings taken at One Step for One Step needs and there’s a growing group of people who will be giving more and more direction as we grow. But really, we’re just obeying day-to-day and we’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”

And what if One Step does grow to the point of becoming a full-fledged independent congregation? What sort will it be? What will happen?

The two men have an answer for that.

“Our honest answer is that we don’t know,” Hurley said. “We trust God will let us know when we need to know. This is so different from anything we’ve done we don’t pretend to know how it should turn out. It’s not a CME thing or Methodist thing, a Bethel or Forest Hill thing, or even a Bruce or Baxter thing. It’s a kingdom of God thing. We don’t want to get in the way of that.”

Burns shares the sentiment.

“Our call, our call beyond our vocational calling, is to reach as many people as we can with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To pass it on in whatever way we can. Baxter and I are supporting one another as we get off the beaten path to do that and to work for better racial situations in Macon. That’s kingdom work, too. If this gets up and running and is self-sustaining, I think we’d both be happy to turn it loose to whoever God says. Then we might even branch off and go start something similar in other corners of Macon. It’s something to pray for, anyway.”

Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

One Step at Ingleside

Address: 3187 Ridge Ave., Macon

Information: 478-477-1161

Website: foresthillsmacon.com/welcome/coming-events

Leadership: the Rev. Bruce Burns and the Rev. Baxter Hurley

Worship: The second Sunday monthly at 6 p.m.

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