Opinion Extra

McAlister: Columbia’s ‘ecclesiastical odd couple’ is at it again

The choirs of First Baptist Church in Columbia and Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia perform in joint concert in 2014.
The choirs of First Baptist Church in Columbia and Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia perform in joint concert in 2014. Courtesy First Baptist Church of Columbia

‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame” will not be the first song at the new Spirit Communications Park on BullStreet.

Instead, it will be Christian music from four Columbia-area church choirs and orchestras joined by the Capital City Chorale on Sunday, four days before the Columbia Fireflies throw out the first pitch of their inaugural season.

The concert, “Night of Joy,” is free to the public and starts at 6:30 p.m.

It is the brainchild of the ecclesiastical odd couple, Wendell Estep, pastor of Columbia’s First Baptist Church, and Charles Jackson Sr., pastor of Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.

I dubbed them the odd couple in 2000 when I wrote about their joining together their congregations (mostly white at First Baptist and mostly black at Brookland) for the first Easter sunrise service of the new millennium at Williams-Brice Stadium, which drew more than 30,000 people.

(Full disclosure: Dr. Estep is my pastor and best friend, and Dr. Jackson has become a wonderful friend and confidant. My life is immeasurably richer because of them).

They are odd, or at least unusual, because of their backgrounds. Dr. Estep grew up in a small Texas town that had no African-Americans. While Dr. Jackson grew up in Lexington County, he says that his life was mostly confined to the black community.

About two decades ago, the two decided to take a stab at friendship. Their reasoning: They pastor two of Columbia’s largest churches founded on biblical doctrines, one of which is to “love one another.”

They agreed that many African-Americans and whites don’t love each other because they don’t trust each other. They don’t trust each other because they don’t know each other. And they don’t know each other because they don’t spend time with each other.

So they decided to spend time with each other, and — whadda ya know — now they’re best buddies. And so are their wives.

Photos: A sneak peak of Spirit Communications Park

Conversations between Charles and Wendell can turn on a dime: C.S. Lewis-type theological discussions one minute, interrupted by Don Rickles-type pokes at each other the next. There is no barrier between them; they discuss race, politics and God — the three most incendiary subjects on the planet nowadays — with candor and, at times, humor.

Their friendship has extended to the members of First Baptist and Brookland Baptist, whose congregations regularly get together for special events. Out of that corporate worship have blossomed many personal friendships.

Now another generation of Esteps and Jacksons is following in their footsteps. Their sons pastor the two other sponsoring churches for “Night of Joy” — the Rev. Charles Jackson Jr. of New Laurel Street Baptist and the Rev. Erik Estep of Village Church in Blythewood.

“To see our relationship go to the next generation is especially pleasing,” said Dr. Estep. “It is our desire, our prayer, our belief that maybe they will find the same friendship that Charles and I have found.”

Cynics among us would say that the idea of any kind of unity, even among Christians, is impossible on a large scale. Such critics can’t be dismissed, because of empirical evidence.

Polls show that Americans are less religious than at any other time since polls have been conducted. The Judeo-Christian worldview, which informed the founding and nurturing of the United States for most of its history, is in decline — under attack by radical secularism that rejects moral absolutes.

By any measure, Americans like never before are polarized by race, religion and politics.

My friends, the pastors, know this all too well. Yet they persist in their friendship, confident in their calling. Dr. Jackson summed it up in explaining the importance of “Night of Joy”:

“In light of the divisions that separate us and keep us from reflecting the kingdom of righteousness, it’s good for us to come together and show forth a united body of believers in Jesus Christ. In spite of the diversity that we have among us, we can celebrate as believers because of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday night. You’re invited.

Mr. McAlister runs a public relations and marketing company in Columbia; contact him at bobmcalister@me.com.