Unity leads to spiritual growth for Black, White congregations during transition
Manuel Pigee III boldly prayed in 2015, asking God to lead United Believers Baptist Church to a rebirth at a new property.
After three years of fasting and praying, God presented the steadily growing African-American congregation with the opportunity to move into a facility utilized by Oakcrest Baptist Church, a predominantly Caucasian congregation, whose Sunday morning worship attendance was in steady decline.
Since United Believers Baptist Church said, “Yes,” in January to sharing the campus, the congregation has seen God move in more ways than they ever imagined.
“When I became pastor of the church, I said to them I want you to know I am praying God would do something no one could take credit for — that God would get the glory,” he said. “The way He opened the door and solidified this partnership has generated a great spirit of joy and peace. We are overwhelmed by God’s grace.”
United Believers Baptist Church was formed after Hurricane Katrina forced Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans to meet at three separate locations, including the Baton Rouge campus.
Within a year, many members of the Franklin Avenue congregation returned to New Orleans, but a remnant of around 100 stayed behind, growing to 136 in 2017.
In 2011, Pigee was called as pastor of the church, which was still a campus of Franklin Avenue.
Four years later, on April 15, 2015, the congregation voted to rename itself United Believers Baptist Church, adopting Psalm 133:1 as its mission – “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
During their three-year search for a new home, the congregation was introduced to Oakcrest Baptist.
At one time, that congregation had as many as 600 participating in Sunday morning worship, but as the demographics around the neighborhood changed, attendance steadily declined, with fewer than 20 attending last year.
After a meeting among representatives of the two churches, in June and then another in October, Oakcrest Baptist leaders told Pigee God was leading them to allow United Believers Baptist to share the space, which is located on Greenwell Springs Road in Baton Rouge.
“They told us we were the church that could reach the community for years to come, and they wanted to work out an agreement with us to gracefully phase out,” Pigee said. “I said to my people this is a great privilege the Lord has allowed us to walk alongside this aging congregation. With the racial divide that is happening in America, it’s amazing to see an aging Anglo church willing to partner with an African American plant as God allows us to escort them to glory.”
Charles Bennett, pastor of Oakcrest, said the relationship between his church and United Believers Baptist has been pleasant. “We felt we had a choice,” Bennett said. “We could let the buildings not being used to deteriorate, or, we could look for a group we felt good about coming in to use the facilities; and, we wanted a Southern Baptist group in here. Our people are very open and appreciative by the way they have come in and made a difference for Christ.”
Tommy Middleton, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge, applauds the members of Oakcrest for seeing the need for ministry in its facility for generations to come.
“To the credit of Oakcrest and the leadership and sensitivity of United Believers, it’s turned out to be almost a textbook of how it’s supposed to be in terms of support, cooperation and love,” he said.
“In many churches throughout our state and national conventions, churches go through seasons of great growth and then that season passes,” he continued. “If there is not a renewal and a shift to address cultural changes in the neighborhood, that trend continues downward. When they recognize how to correct it or change it over to another church, it allows for a vibrant Gospel witness to continue in that area. Sometimes we hang out with stubbornness — you’ve got to let it go.”
Since moving into the new building, United Believers Baptist has spent most of its time upgrading the property and building relationships with residents of the neighborhood.
Members have spruced up the landscaping, restriped the parking lot, installed lights in the parking lot, and placed monitors and additional lighting inside the worship center. Ministry efforts at its new campus have included a spring revival featuring Middleton and Franklin Avenue Baptist Pastor Fred Luter, a Mother’s Day tea and door-to-door visitation. Future ministry plans include a class to prepare young boys and girls for adulthood and after-school tutoring on Wednesdays.
“One piece of feedback from the community is they want a place for children to go for spiritual enrichment and learn practical life skills,” Pigee said. “We want to do social ministry as a way to create bridges and bring people to the Kingdom through a life-changing relationship with Christ.
“I anticipate us really impacting the community and touching the lives of families and youth through our social outreach programs,” he said. “We are integrating ourselves more into the community. More than anything we want to be a lighthouse, where people’s faith is being shaped and they are being taught to practice it.”
By Brian Blackwell
Special to The Drum