Two Florida churches are soon expected to undergo a merger that pastors hope will help send a message on race relations throughout the state -- and beyond.
On Jan. 4, 2015, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville -- a predominantly black church -- will take over Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park. Ridgewood's congregation is mostly white.
The latter has struggled financially and Shiloh Pastor H.B Charles Jr., who is black, along with Ridgewood Pastor Michael Clifford, who is white, decided that a union would be the best course of action.
"None of this would have happened without the leadership of Michael. He's a good man," Charles told The Huffington Post in a phone interview.
Charles, who serves as the lead pastor for more than 8,000 churchgoers, said his congregation is overwhelmingly excited and looks forward to the possibilities the merger will bring.
"We're hoping we'll be a witness of racial reconciliation in our city and beyond and that we can come together beyond the things that divide us and work together to make the community better," he said.
Charles said he is aware of potential challenges the merger could bring, but he remains confident the church will overcome them.
"We're learning to love beyond our culture and others learn to love beyond theirs," he added. "It requires humility, unity and a willingness to change and grow, but they're good challenges that we're looking forward to facing."
Among the trials the churches could face are potentially challenging reactions from residents in a state that has become notorious for being the site of racially charged cases.
Shiloh is in the same city where black teenager Jordan Davis was killed by a white, 47-year-old Florida man over loud music in November 2012. The shooter was recently charged with first-degree murder.
It is also not too far from Sanford, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, in what became one of America's most widely discussed cases about race.
"We were of course aggrieved and hurt as everyone else was by the news of the tragedies that have taken place around us," Charles said.
"But we fought them with prayer, love and attempts to reach out and make a difference by the love of Jesus Christ and the love that we share."
In the coming month, the church will undergo small but critical moves to merge the two institutions and will officially launch a united congregation within the first few days of the new year.
Charles will serve as the primary teaching pastor while Clifford will oversee all of the Christian education along with a weekday and Sunday morning training program.
"We're hoping this merger is not shouting at the darkness," Charles said. "We're hoping it will turn on the lights."
Stay plugged in with the stories on black life and culture that matter. Learn more