By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
They stood together at the pulpit of Rialto Baptist Church in Covington on Sunday, Jan. 15 — Thomas Bester, a 63-year-old African-American pastor, and Carl Funderburk, an almost 80-year-old Anglo pastor.
As I watched them I could only imagine the stories they could tell from having witnessed first hand the racial strife of the civil rights movement in the 1960s-70s. On this occasion, however, these two pastors were united under the spirit of the God that both have faithfully served for decades.
Southern Baptists traditionally observe a “Race Relations Sunday” each year. No doubt, it’s just a day on the calendar for most churches.
But for Rialto Baptist Church and Forerunner Baptist Church of Ripley, this day had special significance. Their story is one of not just talking about relating with people of a different race; it’s a story of two churches putting the concept into practice.
Rialto is a traditional Southern Baptist church with nearly 100 years of history behind it. At one point it was a strong church with a membership of more than 200 people. The church is located in a section of Covington that has changed over the decades. As a result, many members moved away and most of those who remained have since died.
As of Sunday, Jan. 15, the church had about five members, plus Funderburk and his wife Jane. Church members realized several years ago that the church they love probably would cease to exist. Under Funderburk’s guidance and leadership, they voted several years ago to give their facility to Big Hatchie Baptist Association and any money left in their account to the Cooperative Program once it ceased to exist.
They also know God has a purpose for that small, struggling congregation (see story). That purpose is now coming into fruition. On Jan. 15 members of Rialto invited Forerunner Baptist Church to launch its Forerunner Covington Campus at Rialto Baptist Church.
It was a day of celebration for both congregations. The entire Forerunner congregation came from Ripley to worship at Rialto. Both pastors said that it is time to stop labeling others. Bester noted that he is tired of people talking about white churches, black churches, Hispanic churches, etc. “God called us to be in this together.”
His counterpart at Rialto agreed. “It’s time for people to quit labeling everybody. … We’re here for one purpose and God expects the best of us.”
True words from two wise men of God who “have been around the block.” All Southern Baptists would be wise to heed their words. God wants His people united, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Rialto has not given up. The church will continue to meet alongside the Forerunner Covington Campus.
As for Forerunner, the church is continuing its pastor’s vision of planting churches throughout West Tennessee. The Covington campus will be the third mission for Forerunner which also has a campus in Brownsville. The church has a unique opportunity to reach the African-American community that now surrounds Rialto Baptist.
There are churches all across Tennessee in similar situations. Communities change. People move. Churches either adapt to their communities or they can do as Rialto has done — allow other churches to use their facilities to reach the community.
There’s no sadder sight to see than an old abandoned church building.
Fortunately, that will not occur in Covington.
God definitely had a different plan for Rialto Baptist. Pray for these two congregations — both distinctively different — but united by an amazing God who sees beyond color and race.