Two historically separate churches came together to help fund and construct a building to highlight the progress of racial relations and social acceptance in Tyler.
Members of three historic Tyler churches gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony for Heritage Hall at the Greater New Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, 502 Horace Ave.
Leaders within the 135-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the 164-year-old First Baptist Church of Tyler and the 106-year-old Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church participated in the event.
The addition, which will lead into the church’s sanctuary, will house depictions of the progress toward acceptance. The funding for the hall comes from an anonymous donor within the First Baptist Church, organizers said.
Wednesday’s ceremony signified nearly two decades of working together to break down the barriers of race within the church community, according to church leaders.
“This project is not about sticks and stones, it’s about building relationships,” said Danny Manning, architect of the extension.
The Rev. Jerome R. Milton, with Pleasant Hill, said he has seen the changing attitudes within the community. In 1987, Milton was one of the organizers for the Tyler Martin Luther King parade in Tyler. He said for the first two years, the parade and celebration to honor Dr. King was held at his church and within his community. Then in 1990, Milton the decision to move the parade to the downtown square was met with opposition.
“That’s when the walls of Jerico started getting cracks in it,” he said. “People said it couldn’t happen, it wouldn’t happen, it won’t happen — and it happened. (There were) almost 800 strong in that first march, so we made the impossible possible and the improbable probable.”
Following the march, parade participants met in the Catholic church — a tradition that continues today. Milton also is involved in the Catholic community as a coach at the Bishop T.K. Gorman Regional Catholic School.
But as the walls of what was socially acceptable began to crumble within the communities, churches remained largely segregated, organizers said.
About 15 years ago, Milton and former senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Dr. Mike Massar, began working together to improve relations between the church communities and still periodically preach at one another’s services.
Milton said elderly members in his congregation were around long enough to talk with people who lived during slavery times and the turmoil that followed. He said the prejudice was on both sides, but the uniting of the two communities was an emotional one.
“For them to lay eyes on a First Baptist pastor standing in an (African)-American pulpit on this side of Tyler preaching his heart was something they never thought they would never see…” he said. “Those members with tears in their eyes saw what they never thought they would see. It was wonderful, warm time.”
The building of Heritage Hall comes at time of racial turbulence following the decision in the Trayvon Martin case.
“There are opinions on both sides, but at the end of the day, as faith communities, we are God’s people and we are about healing and hope and helping …” Milton said. “What a time, what a moment, to celebrate what we have done and what we are doing — instead of dividing as a community, we are uniting as a community.”
Construction on the hall is anticipated to begin Monday and the dedication of the building is tentatively set for late September.