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Abundance at Anathoth

Garden of Reconciliation
In the small farming town of Cedar Grove, N.C., an unsolved murder helped whites and blacks imagine a better future

*Adapted from “Race and Reconciliation in Cedar Grove,” which aired July 7, 2010, on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC 91.5 FM

The farming town of Cedar Grove, N. C., has been home to both African-Americans and whites for generations. But until recently, many people in the community preferred to keep their social and religious lives separate. This is the story of how a tragedy changed that.

Pastor Grace Hackney is a tall woman with a gentle smile who loves being a minister. Hackney didn’t follow her calling until later in life, after working as a teacher and raising two children. When she graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2003, her first assignment was to the historic congregation of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church.

“After living in northern Chatham County and going to school at Duke, I thought I had a good sense of what life in North Carolina was like, but I didn’t,” says Hackney. “It was like coming to a different country. This is a very different part of North Carolina.”

Northern Orange County is a place of both great wealth and great poverty. Many families there have owned vast parcels of land for generations. At the same time, there are desperately poor people who live in trailers or barns without running water and working toilets. When Hackney arrived in Cedar Grove, it was also very segregated. Even though blacks and whites were neighbors, they rarely socialized with each other. And they certainly didn’t go to church together.

During her first week as pastor, an African-American man showed up outside the church. Hackney noticed no one had invited him in. She went out to speak with him, and learned he was looking for work.

“I hired him on the spot to weed the flower bed in front of the parsonage,” says Hackney. He befriended the congregation, and began coming to church. When she later learned that he had landed in jail, she went to visit him.

“The lieutenant at the jail questioned me about my credentials,” Hackney says. “He said, ‘I know that church in Cedar Grove. They wouldn’t have a woman pastor, and they certainly wouldn’t have a black person in their church.’”

That didn’t stop Hackney from trying to get to know everyone in the community. One day she was outside Cedar Grove’s tiny post office, which is right next to her church. When she saw an African-American man standing there looking at the church building, she went to him and introduced herself as the pastor.

“I did that often at the post office,” Hackney says. “That’s how I met people.” Although she learned his name was Valee Taylor, Hackney didn’t know anything else about him.

Taylor, who is a retired probation officer, remembers that he’d been working in his garden that day and was wearing dirty work clothes. He was driving his old pickup truck to deliver extra vegetables to people who needed them. He was shocked when Hackney spoke to him.

“She said, ‘My name is Grace Hackney. I’m the new pastor at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, and I would love you to come, I welcome you to come, and worship with us.’ Surprisingly, I’ve never had a Caucasian pastor to approach me and invite me to their church.”

Hackney remembers saying, “Valee, as a white Christian and as a United Methodist, I feel like I owe you an apology, because we have not always done rightly by African-Americans.”

In 1800, African-Americans made up nearly one-fifth of the Methodist Episcopal Church. But they were denied full equality from the very beginning. When white Methodists began backing away from criticizing slavery, black parishioners formed separate African Methodist churches. The majority, white Methodist churches that remained were segregated until 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed. Grace Hackney carried the weight of all that history on her shoulders as she talked to Valee Taylor. But that’s not what Taylor remembers.

“She made the mention of souls, and asked me, ‘What do you think the kingdom of heaven looks like?’ She said, ‘It’s all souls; it’s no color.’ It’s stuck with me to this day.”

One of the first things Valee Taylor did after that conversation was to call his mother to tell her what had happened. For generations, his family has lived in Orange County, where his grandfather was the largest landowner, with a thousand acres to his name. Taylor’s father is a retired army officer who served two tours in Vietnam. His cousins