Centre Region Pastors McKenzie and Nold Explore Path for Racial Healing
A special friendship began in the early 1990s when Dan Nold, a new pastor at State College’s Calvary Church, reached out to Harold McKenzie, a new pastor serving State College’s Unity Church of Jesus Christ.
Nold invited McKenzie to become active in a fellowship group for ministers, and that was initially a tough sell for the busy McKenzie. Because his church could not yet afford a full salary, the Harrisburg native had to work another full-time job to support his family.
“I was just trying to keep my head above water,” says McKenzie. “But Dan shared his heart with me. He saw me as a valuable part of God working through us together in our city, and that started our relationship.”
Nearly 30 years have gone by, and the two have teamed up for all kinds of experiences. They’ve enjoyed breakfasts together at The Waffle Shop. (“Where else?” they say in unison.) They’ve treated their wives to dinner at Kelly’s. They’ve carried each other’s burdens, prayed for each other’s kids, preached in each other’s churches. They even served together for a year and a half as co-chaplains for the Penn State football team. Notes Nold, “I would say Harold is one of my best friends if not my best friend.”
So here they were—on the very day of George Floyd’s funeral—sitting together on Nold’s porch while I asked for their insights into America’s racial struggles. Despite the sad occasion, I felt privileged to interview this pair: two men who represent different racial backgrounds and who have forged a strong partnership of teamwork and trust. Below are edited portions of our hour-long conversation.
You told me how the two of you met and became friends. But how did your relationship move to a point of deeper trust?
McKenzie: About four or five years ago, our church was located on Gill Street and we had started the process of looking for land to build in another place. So then Dan said, “Well, we should talk.” He and another one of his leaders, Dan Dorsey, (Calvary’s executive pastor) wanted to talk to me and some of my leaders about getting land out here at Harvest Fields. And that was a powerful thing because our congregation is predominantly African American. I would talk about Dan all the time with these leaders, about our “bromance,” as the saying goes. But then, in that moment of time, Dan and Dan Dorsey opened up their hearts about what God had been saying to them about racial unity and racial reconciliation.
So they're sitting across from us, almost in tears. And my leaders, five or six of them, are sitting there and they're about in tears. Now we’re not talking about people who are 15- or 20-years-old. If we go back five years or so, the people on my leadership team were in their upper 40s to their 50s. And for the first time ever, they heard a white person—particularly a white Christian leader—express an acknowledgement of the pain that people of color are dealing with, not just in our country but in our community. And that expression broke everybody's heart in a positive way. And they also offered the land, they said, “We want to give you guys some land.” Well, that ended up not working out.
Nold: You got a better deal.
McKenzie: Well, where we ended up (2280 Commercial Boulevard), it was cheaper and easier for us than to have gotten free land and still have to build.
I'd like to know when the two of you talk about America's racial struggles, what themes do you go to? What are the things that are most deeply in your hearts?
McKenzie: Well, when I share my thoughts I don't presume to speak for all black people. I don't presume even to speak for other peoples of color because systemic racism in our country has impacted every other ethnic group that is not white, from the Founding Fathers all the way up to this day. That's a painful journey in a painful experience. It’s like you have a horrible open wound that keeps getting poked at. But God, by his sovereignty has put something in my heart that he won't let go of, that I can't get away from. Some years ago, around the time of the tragic shooting in Ferguson (18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a policeman) we had a rash of killings, and I saw all the valuable work that was being done—our society at large standing up and saying, “This is wrong, this has to change.” I think that is important and so good, but what God stuck in my heart is that the church is the key place. The church is the determining factor because racism and bigotry and bias is sin. And the only answer to sin is Jesus. When we look at the supernatural power to change hearts, it is within the church and he put it in my heart to pursue this as a vision.
But the challenge is that the church has let the world influence us. There’s racism in the church and there's bigotry and bias in the church. Speaking of white brothers and sisters, there are many to be applauded who let the Holy Spirit work in their hearts on this and who see this as a moral standing. They are not silent, they are not indifferent, but when we look at the church as a whole and its journey from slavery to now, we have had such a mixed record. And because of racism in the church, we have gotten a racially demographic description. So now we are the white church. We are the black church. We are the Hispanic church. We are the Chinese or the Asian church. But in my heart, to my core, I don't believe that ever entered our Father's heart. He sees us as his one church, one family. And so it's become a passion of my heart to see us come together and fight this together.
Some of us as people of color, we might have been hurt so much that we feel like we’re done with it. We might say, “White folks, y'all can be over there and I'll be over here. And somehow God will sort it out when we get to heaven.” But we have a dear pastor in our congregation, Vernon Davis, and he says, “If the church doesn’t get this right, the world never will.”
Nold: For me, America's racial challenge goes first to my personal journey, and my relationship with Harold has been part of that journey. I'll never forget one of the first times of sitting down with Harold and Sherren (Harold’s wife, Sherren is a native of Mississippi; the McKenzies were married in 1972). And she began sharing some of her stories of how racism impacted her as a little girl. For me, part of it is just saying, “This is a brother and a sister. Sometimes (when discussing racial strife) we get so caught up in the question of who did what wrong. But for me, the heart of it is this is family. And that’s part of the theme that Harold brings to me. He has a passion for the family of God.
Harold McKenzie yearns for the church to lead in racial harmony. Photo by Bill Horlacher | For StateCollege.com
What sorts of joint ministry activities have you two sponsored?
McKenzie: Going back to that conversation with Dan and Dan Dorsey, after that we said, “OK, what are we going to do with this?” Because they opened up and shared their hearts, we started having conversations with our leaders. We had several meetings at Unity and at Calvary just with leaders to develop relationships across ethnicity, because Calvary is predominantly white and Unity is predominantly African American. It began to grow into a consensus group that now has on its listserv about a hundred people and at its regular meetings, about 30 to 40. And it's morphed into a group called RUN, the Racial Unity Network. RUN is a completely Christ-centered group, focused on racial unity in the body of Christ and reconciliation in the body of Christ. We are hoping it will expand from Calvary and Unity to the body of Christ in our community, and also going out into the community to address issues. Also, the two churches did a series of six services together in early 2019 to talk about racial reconciliation.
If America's long struggle for racial harmony was a book, how would you describe this current chapter?
Nold: For me, this current chapter is broader than the racial issues. But it's all tied together. God has us in a special time, and it didn't start with the coronavirus. I would say it began with this growing thing of partisan politics and not just politics, but this divide between people. People can't listen to each other. And one of the most egregious places we see it is in the racial area. So I’ve said to people that I believe this is not a temporary time, but it’s a transitional season. If it was a temporary time, the goal would be to get out of it as quickly as possible. I think a lot of people—not people of color, but white people—are saying, “Man, can we just get back to normal?” But transitional seasons are times when God does some of his most transformational work. So the goal is not to get out of it as quickly as possible, but the goal is to get into it as deeply as we need to, for God to do what he needs to do.
Even if your theology doesn't like to say that God started all of this, we all believe God could end it. And he hasn't. I think that’s because he’s not done with the transformative work. The three things I keep talking about are the posture of surrender, the posture of vulnerability and the posture of brokenness. Surrender is all about control. I think God has been trying to tell us, “You're not in control.” Vulnerability is me saying to somebody else, someone like Harold, “I need you more than you need me.” And I have sensed that—I need him in this town to lead with, I need him in my life, I need Unity to thrive. And then the posture of brokenness is realizing that what I bring to the table is not my ability or resources, but it's my desperate dependency on God.
McKenzie: I want to take off from what Dan said, this whole thing about how lots of people want to get back to normal. But for people of color getting to “normal” is not a normal. This chapter is actually the same thing we've seen throughout history, but it was recorded on cell phones and immediately shot all over the world. And so that created a cry. This cannot go on. So it's the same historic narrative but played out in an era where it could be broadcast all over the world. I agree with Dan that God our father is saying, “No, this is not about getting back to normal. It's what I want to do in and through you with this list of circumstances.”
Why has it taken so long for white America to truly understand black Americans’ weariness of racism and fear of the police?
McKenzie: I think that’s a good question. I think the heart of bigotry, bias and racism gives you an excuse to look at somebody as different. And that gives you an excuse to minimize their pain and their experience. If we have this indifference, then we aren’t really looking at our Lord Jesus. His whole gospel was built on compassion, love, empathy. Even for those from the most hated groups. He approached a Samaritan woman and instead of calling her out, he drew her out. That’s the compassion we need.
Nold: That’s a great answer. The only thing I would add to it is that we have a deep, deep desire for comfort and control. Diving into these kinds of issues means giving up control, and it ain't going to be comfortable. So if I can maintain my comfort and control, you know I'll do that. And then, like Harold said, if I think the other people aren’t as important as me or they deserve a certain kind of treatment, then that just makes it easier. I think America has the twin idols of comfort and control.
As you think about this time in American life, what Bible passages seem especially relevant?
McKenzie: Several scriptures come to my mind. The first is 1 John 4 where it says, “Let us love one another, for love is from God.” So let us love, and let’s not qualify the “one anothers.” Let us love all one anothers. Then in John 17, several verses such as 21 and 23 tell us that our unity as believers will point to Jesus. The point of our unity is not that we're perfect, not that we’ve got it all together. But it’s that we’ve committed ourselves to making the journey together. And if that’s a pipe dream, I'm going to believe it till I die. But as the world starts looking at us and says, “Boy, they're not perfect. They fuss. But there's something about how they keep making this journey of harmony and unity and reconciliation.”
Dan Nold and Harold McKenzie often trade pulpits or share a platform. Photo provided
I want to ask a question or two about our local situation. A lot of folks here who have a white cultural perspective may feel that Happy Valley is a perfect place to live. What are the issues for people of color who live here?
McKenzie: White people who grew up here and move away can’t wait to get back here. But there are people of color who can't wait to get out of here. They are people for whom Happy Valley is not happy. Happy Valley is not happy when you walk into Walmart—this is a true story—and in the craft section, the N word is spelled out with letters on the shelves. If you drive through a neighborhood where you live or maybe your son or your daughter live, and you’re stopped by the police just because you have a nice car and they don't think you should be there…that Happy Valley’s not happy. And Happy Valley's not happy when you're standing and watching a Memorial Day parade and you see a Confederate flag in the parade. And you’ve got to explain that to your child. That doesn’t mean there’s not qualities of living here, but I think those things make it less enjoyable for people of color.
How do you come to terms with the death of Osaze Osagie who was shot by police in March of 2019 as they were trying to serve a mental health warrant?
McKenzie: His parents are some of the finest Christians you could ever meet. And he loved the Lord, too. I’m not here to say which side it (responsibility) comes down on. But I think the pain of it fits the narrative that so many people of color have lived. It exacerbates the pain that is already there, even for our law enforcement people who have purposed in my view to be intentional about building good relationships between them and the community of color. It hasn’t been perfect by any means, but there’s been a greater intention there.
Nold: I'll just say one of the things that I appreciate about Harold is that his empathy flows both ways. I don't think there's ever been a prayer vigil or a public meeting, whether it was recent or soon after Osaze’s death, when Harold hasn't prayed for the police. We have police officers in our church, and they carry this burden also.
How likely is it that the horrendous killing of George Floyd, caught on video, will serve as the impetus for white Americans to finally face racism head-on?
McKenzie: There was a young man, Emmett Till, who was killed in 1955, and it became national news. All of a sudden there was an awakened interest in civil rights. And then you had a leader like Dr. King being assassinated in 1968, and there was another big groundswell, but for how long? So I don't know if I'm being a bit pessimistic. Because we see athletes and we see prominent white people saying we've got to make a change. But I just wonder. Because if the church is not able to see this and respond, particularly the white brothers and sisters of the church, this will go on for a little bit but we’ll acquiesce.
Nold: I almost feel like it's not my place as a white person to say. But I have hope. And it's only because Jesus is still Lord of the church and he still loves the world. And so I do feel hopeful. I feel like there’s change happening in the church. And even more than seeing change, I just have hope in God doing something.
NOTE: Unity and Calvary churches will offer a joint virtual service this Sunday, and only the announcements will vary between the two feeds. The service can be received through Unity at 10:30 am via YouTube or directly through ucjc.org. The service can be received through Calvary at 9 am or 11 am via live.calvarysc.org.