CINCINNATI -- In 2016, Chuck Mingo, the pastor at the Oakley campus of Crossroads Church, created a program called UNDIVIDED in which mixed-race groups got together to talk about race.
The goal was to promote nonjudgmental discussions and help participants understand the experiences of other races.
In September, about 80 who participated in UNDIVIDED last year are taking their commitment to racial equality one step further. They are making a mission trip to South Africa, the former home of apartheid.
In most church mission trips, church members set out to help people in need by either building things for them, giving them medical treatment or simply sharing their faith. This trip's different.
Attendees want to learn from South Africans how they transitioned their society from apartheid to racial inclusion in less than 30 years. They're hoping they can use some of the same tools and knowledge to improve race relations in the Tri-State, said Madisonville resident Sallee Fry, who's planning to make the trip.
"We want to see what they have been doing," said Reading resident Michael Sickles, who's also planning to go. "How they were able to attack racism and how we can do the same thing … We are going to learn, boots-on-the-ground, firsthand experience on how they are doing it."
Sickles and Fry participated in the same UNDIVIDED small group last fall. Four of the eight people in the group are planning to make the South Africa trip, she said.
Crossroads is partnering with a South African church, Grace Bible Church in Johannesburg, to facilitate the trip, which lasts from Sept. 19-29. Like Crossroads, Grace Bible has multiple campuses.
While there, the mission trip members will worship at Grace Bible and spend time in the homes of the church members, Fry said. They'll also visit the prison where former South African president Nelson Mandela was held captive for more than 20 years.
The trip will cost Fry about $3,200. To raise money, she's held a silent auction of donated gifts, with some of her UNDIVIDED group members making bids, and Crossroads has set up a web page to take contributions.
Mingo has told WCPO that he was inspired to create UNDIVIDED in response to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, but also the Dallas attack in July 2016 that killed five police officers. In some ways, he said, we've come a long way in terms of racial progress, but still have farther to go.
Part of the UNDIVIDED process is to answer questions like, "When was the first time you became aware that race existed," or "When was the first time you experienced racial hatred?" Participants were also required to go to dinner, or for coffee or some other activity with a member of the group who was of another race.
The UNDIVIDED process was an eye-opener for Fry, who by her own admission grew up white and privileged in Plymouth, Michigan. The African-American men in the group talked of expecting to be pulled over for some reason every time they drove through certain neighborhoods.
"I thought, 'Wow, how lucky am I,' " she said. "I've never had an experience of getting in the car and thinking, 'I probably shouldn't drive through (a certain neighborhood) with a tail light out.' "
Others talked about telling their children that if they wear a sweatshirt with a hood, don't walk down the street with the hood up. Fry's children have never had to worry about that.
Sickles, who is African-American, said he's had good experiences with police officers and bad ones. One of the bad ones came when he was stopped for driving a car with an improperly displayed license plate. The police officer put him in handcuffs and made him lie on the hood of the car, Sickles said.
He also spoke of walking down local streets and seeing people cross the street to avoid him, or pass by with their heads down.
The UNDIVIDED process inspired him to train to become a facilitator for future UNDIVIDED groups, he said. In May, he said, he helped facilitate an UNDIVIDED talk with Hamilton County's magistrates and judges. For the rest of this month and into September, he'll be helping lead UNDIVIDED groups for the staff of Crossroads.
He's hopeful that Cincinnati can overcome its racial divisions.
"It just takes more people being intentional about these conversations," he said.