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Crossing denominational lines
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When volunteers come to the Community Food Pantry in Covington to sort, buy or deliver emergency food relief to families in need, they don't come just as Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics or Pentecostals. They come because they're concerned about families who don't have enough to eat.

"They're just good people," said Rosalee Thompson, director of the pantry.

The pantry, which assisted over 3,400 people last year, was established two decades ago when pastors from churches near downtown Covington who had run their own food pantries, including First Presbyterian, Bethel Bara Baptist, Bethlehem Baptist, Grace United Methodist, First United Methodist, First Baptist and Good Shepard Episcopal, realized the community might be better served with one centrally located food pantry. Under the auspices of the Minister's Union, they formed the Community Food Pantry, which runs with help from a plethora of groups such as churches, civic groups, schools, businesses and charities.

It's just one of the many projects, organizations and events across Newton County that came about because churches reached across denominational, racial and cultural lines for the betterment of the community in general.

Other examples include FaithWorks, a nonprofit started in 2006 made up of 26 supporting churches that provides emergency housing and utilities payment relief for people in need. "On the Roads With Jesus," an annual trash pickup project held earlier this year, saw the active participation of 22 churches across the county. There are also countless revivals, fundraisers, worship sessions and community events that bring churches together.

"There's long been the effort and the desire of churches to collaborate together," said Pastor David Payne of The Church at Covington.

While the concept of collaboration is not new to Newton County, what is new is the impact of these efforts.

The Rev. Eric Lee of Springfield Baptist Church pointed out that the churches that are collaborating are doing so more effectively.

He said that this was in part because of greater resources and better community outreach.

Efficiency was one of the main reasons that churches came together for FaithWorks, which was five years in the making, said Chairman Bob Furnad.

"It's a more effective use of their money to pool it together and support one entity," said Furnad. That entity then has the manpower to process all the requests for aid that individual churches simply don't have the resources to do. It's also easier for the community to have one place to go for aid instead of canvassing the individual churches.

Eastridge realized, after the first year of holding the "On the Roads With Jesus" within their church, that the project was too big for one church to tackle on their own, said organizer Todd Teasley.

While many pastors and laypersons agree that collaborative efforts are beneficial, actually bringing together the congregations can be quite challenging.

Denominational lines, racial lines, cultural lines and even factional infighting can present significant stumbling blocks to Christians from different churches and backgrounds working together.

 "I think more than anything, what we experience is xenophobia," said Lee. "That's the fear of people not like us, the fear of the unknown. It causes us to really sacrifice relationships."

But the most common difficulty may simply be that scourge of modern life: a lack of time.

"Oftentimes it's not that folks don't want to work together," said the Rev. Billy Wade of First Presbyterian Church in Covington, "but we get so busy within our own congregation and we think that's all there is."

Linda Miller, chair of missions at Eastridge Community Church, agreed. "Churches are like people. We get involved in ourselves and what we are doing," she said.

The majority of the pastors of the churches in Newton County work a job and pastor a church, Payne pointed out, and the other pastors who are full-time have a lot of that time taken up by denominational requirements.

For Pastor Carlton Mathis of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, the hurdles were complacency and redundancy. Macedonia Missionary Baptist is hosting its first conference, "The Critical Hour Family Conference," today and Saturday with the efforts of 50 to 65 other churches, in order to break that redundancy.

"I think a lot of churches fellowship with the same churches because we're used to it," he said. "We're very accustomed to operating within the walls. But studying the movement of Jesus, change takes place outside the walls."

Payne observed that working with other churches and other denominations, while it sends a positive message to the outside community, might be viewed negatively within a church as supporting people who have different beliefs.

And of course, there is the issue of competition between churches.

"Churches that are on fire about collaborating are the churches that have decided intentionally to stop competing with each other," said Lee. "Churches that are consistently growing realize the problem is too big for any one church,; the community is too big for any one church," he said.

Because of these barriers, a church that wants to reach out and work with other churches has to be very intentional about it say pastors and church leaders.

"It's just a matter of making it what you're about," said Payne.

The leadership of the pastor plays a large role in this intentionality.

"I think a lot of the church's direction is determined by a pastor's attitude," said Wade. "If a pastor reaches out to another pastor, often they can work together and get their congregations to work together."

But the push to reach out to other churches can come from lay members and leadership as well. "On the Roads With Jesus" was driven largely by Teasley and the lay missions team at Eastridge, said Miller, and organized primarily among the lay people of the participating churches.

Common, basic needs and issues seem to lend themselves more readily to collaborative efforts, said Wade and Payne, while Lee feels it's more of a case-by-case basis.

Drawing on his experience with Habitat for Humanity in Newton County, Wade spoke of what's been called the theology of the hammer.

"We can disagree on lots of things, but we can all agree on the need for decent housing," he said. "I think it's the same with food and the basic needs of folks, that we can certainly come together to meet basic needs."

But besides meeting those needs, collaborations between churches can produce unexpected fruit, such as unity and new relationships.

"Those events build the character of the relationship and help us touch one another," said Lee. "Whereas, if we're only going to church, we're only touching people in our church."

Of this year's "On the Roads With Jesus," Teasley said, "What we didn't expect was the blessing of the unification that was taking place during the time of it. God was really unifying the churches and growing us together."

In the Bible, the church is likened to a body, said Payne. "Every part has a different purpose. My foot does not serve the same purpose as my eye. The body has many members, but it's one body and we have to work together. That's the message of the love of God through Jesus."