A Light+Life Podcast

With guests Patrick McNeal and Kurtis Koffkey

Hosted by Brett Heintzman

Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Free Methodists in Genesee County, Michigan, are working to foster unity, empathy and understanding in an area that the local Flint Journal newspaper describes as having “a long history of racial tension.”

The county was once among the top 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation, but the newspaper reports that the county seat, Flint, is “gaining a more diverse mix of people,” and its suburbs “are slowly growing more racially diverse.” One predominantly White suburb is Flushing, which is home to Cornerstone Community Church where Kurtis Koffkey became the senior pastor last year after serving as the associate pastor since 2013. Koffkey has connected in recent months with fellow Free Methodist Elder Patrick McNeal, the director of the North Flint Neighborhood Action Council and a facilitator for Community Roots.

In an interview with Brett Heintzman for a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast,” McNeal and Koffkey shared how Cornerstone partnered with Community Roots at the recommendation of East Michigan Conference Superintendent Brad Button who had participated in several of the group’s events. Koffkey recalled that Button “said this was by far the most gracious and assertive, mercy-filled conversation that could be had regarding race, racism and change.” 

McNeal described Community Roots as “a community think tank” that “comes together to identify issues in community and find ways to deal with them.” He and three longtime friends formed the think tank after the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd for which Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in April 2021. 

“All of us are from the same ZIP code — the 48505 ZIP code of Flint, which is the poorest, most economically devastated community in Flint — yet we all have at least one master’s degree,” McNeal said. “We wanted to do something to stop our city from tipping over into what could potentially happen when left unnoticed. We began this idea of saying, ‘We need to have courageous conversations around race.’”

Community Roots launched in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, because McNeal and his friends felt like the need was too big to wait. They initially visited Flint’s four quadrants to hold community dialogues, and they also held online sessions for people who didn’t feel comfortable meeting in person. 

McNeal described a community dialogue as “a really good listening session wrapped around some strategically placed questions about how we really got to this place and what are some ways that we can potentially get out.” While some people mistakenly expected the meetings to just be people venting frustration, they discovered “a structured way of beginning to take steps toward a better reality than the one we have right now.”

Koffkey said Cornerstone hosted Community Roots for an event with “a research structure an invitational model to be heard.” He added that approximately six people were seated at each table with instructions to “listen to one another. We’re not going to interrupt. We’re going to ask these questions, and everyone’s going to have time to respond. We’re going to record your responses, and we’re going to be showing these responses back to Genesee County to show them what the community is saying and how to move forward.” 

The event was held outside in the church’s parking lot for safety reasons because of the pandemic, but that didn’t stop Cornerstone from setting up tables with tablecloths and centerpieces.

“We made it look nice, because this is an honoring conversation,” Koffkey said. “We were able to sit down, have some food, spend time with one another. … When you invite everyone to the table, it helps you understand that you aren’t the only voice that needs to be heard.”

McNeal emphasized that Community Roots is “nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental” with a goal “to begin a conversation that will end with change.” When he facilitates a discussion, he tells people: “My job is not to fix you. My job is to open you up and allow you to take your own inner journey.” Community Roots allows people “to have the space, offering them the grace to be open and honest knowing that you won’t judge them knowing that if you see them at the grocery store, you’re still going to speak to them.” 

Community Roots has adopted the mantra “you can only walk with someone as fast as they desire to go.” McNeal explained that you sometimes have to walk slowly with someone else as the other person picks up the pace so that you don’t leave that person behind. Otherwise, “you’ll leave somebody who really could have been beneficial to the change we want to see.” 

Koffkey emphasized having “the posture of humility — saying, ‘I don’t have all of the answers, but I trust the One who does, and we’re going to learn together with brothers and sisters who are navigating this same life with us.’” He added “I know that my God is a God who wants to give more life and wants to disentangle us from the ways that are tripping us up.”

Nonpartisan Camaraderie

Koffkey attributed the event’s success to factors such as not using “the same language we hear in our homes. It isn’t the same language that we hear on the news or on social media.” Instead, organizers were “inviting everyone at each table to have a voice. Then it created camaraderie in that we really are in this together, so how do we make this better?” 

“I appreciated the wisdom from Community Roots and how they handled the conversation, and the questions themselves were full of wisdom,” Koffkey said. “I think the biggest thing that helped this conversation is it was done in the context of honor. There wasn’t a context of shame. There wasn’t a pointed finger of blame at anyone or anything.”  

McNeal said his father taught him that people should never discuss race, religion or politics. However, those conversations are necessary, but partisanship should be avoided.

“It isn’t whether you are R or D,” said McNeal, referring to the major political parties. “It’s literally: How has your life and where you come from, through your vantage point, positioned you to deal with these issues?”

Koffkey agreed and emphasized the importance of “reframing the conversation. If the church is full of elephants and donkeys, we don’t have room for the lion and the lamb. … We weren’t asking people to switch political camps. We were asking everybody to come where they were and ask that God would reform their own circles.”

The pastor added that the Community Roots session at Cornerstone “gave people the opportunity to ask sincere questions, not baited ones. It transformed our heart from wanting to lead people into positions of defensiveness and attack [and instead] into sincerity.” He added that most people sincerely want to end racism, but “the language we’ve been taught — the language we’ve observed — has been so married into political affiliation, we get defensive or we start attacking, and this event showed us a new way. It was that third way. It got rid of the ‘either/or’ paradigm, and it was we can actually enter into this with humility, and every question gets to be asked in sincerity.”

Participants found common ground. 

“What was such a blessing for me as a pastor was to see people from all sides of the political spectrum come together and all leave saying, ‘This was the opportunity that we needed to move forward together,’” Koffkey said. “The process itself was just this invitation to speak and an invitation to be heard, and I think that brought a lot of healing and unity in our congregation.”

The Ministry of Reconciliation

Some people expressed concern when Koffkey first mentioned that the congregation would be discussing race. 

“I had to host at least five different one-on-one, really hard conversations in my office, but the beautiful thing is this: When people came in even with trepidation and were able to sit down with me, and we talked through why this is important, we left on the same page,” Koffkey said. “Anybody that’s sincere about falling after Christ has to be reminded of 2 Corinthians talking about that we are ministers of reconciliation (5:1121). You have been reconciled to God, and you are reconciled to one another.’”

Koffkey said the world often identifies problems but fails to identify the correct solution. The church can enter saying, “‘We have good news,’ and so we are able to offer that good news especially in the context of racism, because we do have hope, we do have strength, and we do have a way forward.”

Community Roots discussions are designed to address problems instead of only being a forum for personal opinions. 

“Knowing the Word is not enough according to James (1:21–27). You have to be a doer of that same word you know,” McNeal said. “That’s what we try to bring. How do we help people activate that part of themselves that for too long they may not have even had to deal with?”

McNeal said that “bringing four Black guys into all White spaces usually makes people scratch their heads, so we actually ended up all bringing our spouses. Instead of it being four men, it was actually four men, four women all Christ-lovers.”

Although the leaders love Christ, Community Roots does not limit itself to Christian audiences. 

“At the end of the day, the goal is to reach those who are lost, and I’ve learned that lost [people] come in all shapes and sizes,” McNeal said. 

McNeal said many Christians say that sin causes racism, but “the problem becomes when you realize that the sin is yours.” 

Koffkey said that American Christians can “move beyond a huge theological framework into the iterations of what sin looks like in our communities, and we can’t be afraid of calling people to repentance. Calling people to repentance is our main job.” 

He said it can be a painful process for the blind to receive sight. 

“So many people are afraid of condemnation in regard to this conversation about racism, forgetting that’s not what Jesus is planning on doing when he brings up sin. Conviction is so totally, characteristically different than condemnation,” said Koffkey who pointed to John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Click here to learn more about Community Roots or call Patrick McNeal at 810-219-9515.


Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.