JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- On the same day much of the nation reflected on race issues as New York City Police Officer Wenjian Liu was laid to rest Jan. 4, new hope rose in the hearts of those gathered at the official launch of Shiloh Church of Orange Park, near Jacksonville, Florida.
H.B. Charles Jr., the pastor of the predominantly black Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Michael Clifford, pastor of the mostly white Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park, announced a church merger in November with the hope the news would encourage racial reconciliation.
"We're hoping we'll be a witness of racial reconciliation in our city and beyond and that we can come together beyond the things that divide us and work together to make the community better," Charles told Huffington Post.
"The Shiloh Church is now one church in two locations," Charles wrote in his Jan. 5 blog HBC2.
Charles' Shiloh congregation has about 8,000 in attendance, while Ridgewood, according to some estimates, was at about 240 and struggling financially.
The new congregation meets three times on Sundays between the two locations, with Charles preaching at 7:45 a.m. downtown, and after the invitation, heading to Orange Park to preach, and then back downtown for a main service at 10:45 a.m. Clifford will lead Christian education which includes Sunday School and church training.
Enroute to Orange Park Charles felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. Since he had ignored it all morning, he decided to take a peek.
"Praising God from whom all blessings flow."
The short message was from his wife, Crystal. "I calmed down ... and quietly praised God with her," the energized pastor said.
The 41-year-old pastor is a friend of Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, a sprawling downtown mega-church which hosts the Annual Jacksonville Pastors' Conference. Charles has been a frequent preacher at the conference and Brunson has preached at Shiloh.
In his blog, Charles notes the first service at Orange Park was full and ushers rushed to set out more seats. The choir from Metropolitan came and led in worship, he wrote.
"To mark this new season in the life of the church," Charles preached the Great Commission out of Matt. 28: 16-20 – the same text he preached his first Sunday at Shiloh six years ago – at each of the services.
"I thought it would be appropriate to remind the church what we have been called to be and do," he said, citing Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'
Charles noted he expected the first two services to take a toll, but instead "the Lord blessed."
"It was a great spirit of joy, hope and oneness on the campus. Our staff and volunteers made it happen. New members were added to the church. To God alone be the glory!" he said.
Calling Sunday "a wonderful launch," Charles said, "the Lord made the difference, doing far beyond what we dared to ask or think."
Citing Ephesians 3:20-21, he asked for prayer and encouragement so that "the Lord would use the Shiloh Church to [equip] more and better disciples in Jacksonville, Orange Park, and the nations."
Charles has written a number of books and his resources are available on his website.
New census information figures show that racial integration between black and white people is on the rise, and Jacksonville, once considered one of the most racially divided cities in the nation -- has improved to the point to where it is nearly 50 percent integrated according to statistics.
"We're hoping this merger is not shouting at the darkness," Charles told Huffington post in November. "We're hoping it will turn on the lights."