Amid the sounds of children playing pickup soccer and basketball games, a soulful rendition of “My God is Awesome” pierced through the evening air. Across the street from the Athens park, people stood on their front porches, listening to the gospel song — the culmination of a community worship service that featured a message based on God’s commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“Our goal is to show what it looks like to bring a community together, to love one another and to overcome prejudices and stigmas. It’s something that we need to work on, especially today,” said John Malone Jr., co-minister of Athens Church.
For the second consecutive year, the church expanded beyond its physical building to host outdoor worship services at Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park.
Called Tuesdays in the Park, the services, held every week in June, connect the church with the community and help break down racial, socioeconomic and denominational barriers.
“We chose this park specifically because it was in a neighborhood we wanted to connect with more,” said Tim Murray, former lead minister at Athens Church. “We started old school, house to house, knocking on doors. It worked. We’ve had Hispanics, whites and African-Americans. We had all ages, races and demographics come and worship together. That unity is what we want.”
The worship services represent the next step in the church’s three-year journey of unifying the community.
“I have never understood the separation of the races that occurs every Sunday," Murray said. "Three years ago, God really laid it on my heart to do something. We started praying and studying and asking God to lead the way. He began opening doors."
After a church member introduced Murray to Malone’s father, Southside Church of Christ in Rogersville, a predominantly black church where John Malone Sr. ministers, invited Athens Church, a predominantly white church, to a joint Sunday worship service.
“We did something we had never done before, we closed our doors on a Sunday morning. I preached and we worshipped together. It was a wonderful day. We reciprocated and invited Southside to worship with us. That was the start,” Murray said.
Those worship services helped form the foundation of the churches’ relationship. In 2017, the churches’ connection deepened as Athens Church offered John Malone Jr. a position as minister.
“My grandfather, father and all my uncles are ministers. I grew up in black churches. This has been a very eye-opening experience,” Malone said. “What I love is that the church is authentic and authentic people see authenticity. We are all God-worshipping people, and that is stronger than whatever our differences may be.”
Six months ago, Drew Ellis joined Malone at Athens Church as co-minister of the 100-member congregation.
“He’s a white brother. I’m a black brother,” Malone said. “We are able to bring both of our perspectives, experiences and cultures to the service and lead together. It’s been amazing.”
Murray compared the church’s work of integrating the congregation to stretching a rubber band.
“Just like it’s very easy for a rubber band to snap back to its original form, it’s very easy for us to snap back to where we were before if we don’t keep stretching ourselves,” Murray said.
Part of that stretching included organizing the community worship services.
“This is what the Bible tells us to do," said Charles Lovett, church member. "We are to carry the gospel everywhere and worship as one people. Black or white, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, it doesn’t matter."
Themed “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” the services are led each week by a white leader and a black leader. During Tuesday’s gathering, Malone and Jay Looney encouraged attendees to discuss what loving God and loving their neighbor looked like in today’s world. They talked about the difficulty of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective and the impact pride and fear have on receiving and sharing with each other.
“We put up walls because of our fear of rejection, fear of responsibility and fear of judgment,” Malone said. “Some of us just don’t like to look weak. We all have reasons for putting our walls up, but how much stronger would we be if we tore them down.”
Putting the "love thy neighbor as thyself" commandment into practice is instrumental in the healing of past differences and the creation of unity.
“We need to learn how to love our neighbors and treat them with respect and dignity. In this day and age, we don’t have friendly disagreements anymore. People seem to adopt an adversarial approach and enemies are created," Murray said.
Malone pointed to the recent altercation at Athens High School involving a parent, off-duty police officers hired by the school system and students.
"The only way we will heal and start loving, truly loving, one another again is through the power of Jesus," Malone said.
The final Tuesdays in the Park will take place Tuesday and June 25 at 6:30 p.m. at Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park, 815 Westview Ave., Athens. The services include free food and music.