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Lodi, Stockton churches unite to tear down racial barriers

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Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2001 10:00 pm

You could hear the stomping and singing up and down Lower Sacramento Road on Sunday night as the combined congregations of two very different churches blended into one boisterous, joyous testament to breaking down walls and forging fellowship.

Pastor Bill Cummins of Bear Creek Community Church got the idea several years ago and has been looking for a way to put it into action ever since.

When he formed a friendship with Pastor Rufus Turner of Victory in Praise Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Stockton, the plan seemed to fall into place all by itself.

Cummins and his wife, Dotti, established Bear Creek Church 12 years ago, and in February 1999 moved onto the 10 acres at 11171 N. Lower Sacramento Road.

In an enormous white dome-like structure that resembles an airplane hangar as much as a church hall, the parishioners gathered to sing praises to the Lord with some high tech help.

The structure, known as a "membrane tent" is made of high-impact polypropylene material identical to the temporary structures used by troop commanders in Desert Storm.

Cummins is on a mission of a different kind in this campaign, though. He explained that he wants to begin to tear down the walls of prejudice and division between people of different races, and bring them together in a meaningful way.

When he connected with Turner, he hatched a plan whereby the congregations of their two different churches would share a service and learn from one another.

Although both churches consider themselves nondenominational, Cummins characterizes the Victory in Praise group as "Pentecostal" in style, while his group is more what he calls "contemporary." Both use music and encourage free vocal expression rather than a more formal and staid approach to worship.

The highlight of the ceremony at Sunday's cooperative service was when Cummins, who is white, dropped to one knee and professed his brotherly love for Turner, who is black, and offered to wash the feet of his fellow pastor. The gesture was met with a near-deafening roar from the congregation, who cheered and sang in spontaneous approval.

The 264 chairs inside the tent were filled, that is when people actually sat in them, which was not as often as they were on their feet.

When they did take their seats, it was obvious that there was no segregation here, with people of all hues intermingled throughout the hall.

"People probably just gravitated to where they sit in their own church," Administrative Assistant Debby Harris said. "Some are middle people, and some are side people. Some like the front, and some like the back. It just all worked out."

Harris estimated that approximately half of the audience was from the Stockton church, with half, including adults and children, from their own ministry.

The two churches plan to continue the tradition April 29 when Cummins will shepherd his flock to Stockton for a joint service at Turner's home church.

Bear Creek has a following of about 500 people, and Victory in Praise about 150, so, as Cummins says, "It's gonna be crowded in there."

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