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Chris Beard has deep roots at Peoples Church in Cincinnati, which he began attending at the age of 2 when his dad, Bobby, served as assistant pastor. Like nearly all congregations at the time, the church, then known as First Christian Assembly of God, lacked diversity.
Yet when many predominantly white AG congregations fled inner cities for suburbs in the 1970s, then-pastor Clyde C. Miller made the decision to keep First Christian Assembly where it had been since before it joined the AG in 1933.
Still, First Christian continued to be a commuter church when Chris Beard joined the staff in 1992. Virtually all attendees migrated to the inner core on Sunday mornings, then returned home to suburbia the rest of the week. When Beard took over as lead pastor in 2001, the ethnic makeup of the congregation remained 98 percent Anglo. Beard made intentional plans to make the local congregation more representative of the surrounding neighborhood.
Initially that meant trying to heal a racial divide, a disconnect that caused the church to be largely irrelevant in its environs. Beard already had forged relationships with African-American ministers in the vicinity when four nights of race riots broke out after a white Cincinnati patrol officer fatally shot Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man.
Beard didn't seek to include nonwhite members in the church simply for the sake of diversity in order to stay relevant with changing times.
"The Great Commission says to make disciples of all people," says Beard, a man with piercing blue eyes. "The bride of Christ includes people from every tongue, tribe, nation, and people. The church should be like heaven on earth."
Of course such transformation doesn't happen overnight. Beard took practical steps of teaching reconciliation based on biblical passages like Matthew 28:19-20, John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:15, and Revelation 7:9. He preached on the necessity of understanding the felt needs of the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.
Beard began to share decision-making with people of other races by integrating the all-white church's ministry team and staff. Church members began to volunteer at a nearby at-risk elementary school. Traditional songs gave way to livelier rhythms.
More nonwhites began attending, and they began inviting their friends.
In 2004, the church formulated a clear vision statement that incorporated the words "racial reconciliation," which garnered appreciation from many nonwhites.
By 2007, both black and white lay leaders in the congregation had developed a cultural perspectives curriculum to share the vision in small groups. Participants talked about how they viewed education, history, politics, economics, and cultural values differently.
Sofie Ezaz, 42, says the frank, eye-opening sessions caused members to truly appreciate the perspectives of others. Apologies, healings, and friendships followed, she says.
Ezaz, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Eritrea, has attended Peoples Church since 1998. She is involved in Habesha Ministry, a fellowship among the 120 Ethiopians and Eritrean adults now a part of the congregation. Reconciliation between the two African black groups is an accomplishment, given that the nations engaged in a 30-year war until Eritrea achieved independence in 1991.
"Christ makes everybody one," says Ezaz, who has been on the church's administrative staff since 2008. "He cancels all the superficial differences and replaces them with deep relationships."
Reggie Lenzy, the African-American worship arts and young adult pastor at Peoples Church, says members of the congregation aren't afraid to discuss racially divisive issues because they have established genuine friendships with each other. Lenzy, 33, makes an effort to incorporate different ethnic expressions -- Latin, Asian, African -- in leading singing.
"We try to include all different cultures within our whole worship experience, not just the music part," says Lenzy, who has a deeply resonant voice. Thus, worship isn't confined to contemporary Christian music or black gospel. An international flavor is blended in, whether that's instrumentation, rhythms, dance, or speaking benedictions in different languages.
On several occasions, longtime members felt stretched beyond their comfort zone and left. But Beard persevered.
"The church has learned out of this diverse unity how to address hurts in the city, a city so diverse across linguistic, ethnic, and economic layers," says Beard, 47. "We have more of a capacity to engage. We have former heroin addicts worshipping next to CEOs, who were delivered from their sins."
Beard says after he read a Pentecostal Evangelinterviewfeaturing Oklahoma City AG Pastor Herbert Cooper in 2010, the Lord put the desire in his heart to change the name of First Christian Assembly to better reflect the vision of the congregation. In 2012, First Christian Assembly became Peoples Church.
Beard says he is careful not to overstate the significance of racial reconciliation, yet he finds it integral to the mission of the church.
"The focus has to be Jesus, and what Jesus wants is a bride of all peoples, a gospel reconciling people to God and to each other," Beard says. "We have to love our neighbor and the Lord. They can't be bifurcated."
Terry D. Thomas -- the younger brother of the slain Timothy Thomas -- has been attending Peoples Church for eight years.
Thomas left an all-black church to join Peoples Church.
"It's not really about color; it's about the message," Thomas says. "You won't learn if you only learn from one side. Once I visited, I was hooked. I liked the atmosphere, I liked the people, I liked the pastor's message."
Thomas didn't know Beard at the time of the riots, when he was just 16. In the intervening years he says he had to overcome prejudicial feelings, especially about white police officers.
At Peoples Church, Thomas wed his wife, Otisz. They and their three children have been baptized there as well. He says connections at the church helped him find his current construction job.
Thomas, 30, says he frequently talks to the approachable and friendly Beard.
"Every time I see him he greets me with love and respect," Thomas says. "I respect him highly, as a pastor and a person."
Today, attendance is around 650 on Sunday mornings, up 100 from when Beard took over. Roughly 38 percent of the adherents remain from 14 years ago. Yet now, 25 percent of the church is African-American and another 25 percent originate from 32 foreign countries. Half the pastoral and support staff is nonwhite. Peoples Church also has assisted in planting more than a dozen congregations.