CONYERS - Community members of all races and denominations from Rockdale and Newton counties gathered Saturday in Conyers to affirm their unity in faith.
The event commemorated the 145th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect Jan. 1, 1863.
The day began about 9:30 a.m. when church members rallied at Salem Gate shopping center for the 1.1 mile Walk By Faith ending at Church In The Now, where a worship service was held.
Rockdale County Sheriff's Office deputies who helped to escort the crowd estimated that nearly 2,000 people participated. They brought canned goods and dried foods for Rockdale Emergency Relief, an organization that provides short-term aid to families that live and work in the community. They also carried trash bags to pick up garbage alongside the road as they walked.
The worship service featured a series of prayers and speeches led by religious and community leaders.
"The time is over for us to be separate," said Pastor Eric Lee in his opening remarks at the worship service. "Today we are one church, worshiping one Lord, under one faith."
Lee, a minister at Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers, led the event that involved business and community leaders, as well as members and clergy from about two dozen churches. He said the main goal of the day was to move beyond racial and denominational barriers to come together under the banner of Christ.
"We have to navigate the distance between our potential and our reality," Lee said. "There's so much we can do together."
The Walk By Faith and Unity Worship Service was an initiative on the part of the United Rockdale Summit and the One Voice congregation from Newton County. This was the first event for both groups, which focus individually on promoting unity and diversity within the community.
"It's a great effort," said Willie Gibson, president of the Rockdale chapter of the NAACP. "It's been needed a long time."
Rockdale and Newton counties both have experienced large influxes of minority populations in recent years. In the 10 years between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the number of blacks in Rockdale County nearly tripled. In 1990, the Census Bureau reported that 4,355 blacks resided in Rockdale County, making up approximately 8 percent of the population. By 2000, the black population rose to 12,771, constituting 18.2 percent of Rockdale's overall population.
During that same period, the number of Hispanics rose from just over 1 percent of the population in 1990 to 6 percent at the beginning of the decade.
Numbers in Newton County reflect a growing minority population as well, with blacks and Hispanics making a combined estimated 37.8 percent in 2006. Six years earlier, the Census reported that 1.9 percent of Newton County's population was Hispanic and blacks made up 22.2 percent.
For Rockdale, the combined 2006 estimate of the two minority groups was 45.9 percent of its overall population.
"This a very unique community," said Joe Rhodes, a member of the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce and a deacon at St. Pius X Catholic Church, who attended the gathering. "As Christian churches, we have a lot more in common than what separates us. This brings together what we have in common."
Crowd members shared enthusiasm for the unification of this growing diversity.
"Church unity, that's the only reason," said Leslie Perr of Springfield Baptist Church when asked why she attended.
Dave Courter, a senior at the University of Georgia and a member of the congregation at Church In The Now, said he was impressed by the turnout.
"I've never seen anything like this with churches in the community coming together," he said. "I think it's really cool."
Jeff Beech, an elder at Smyrna Presbyterian Church, agreed it was a great opportunity.
"It's wonderful to do something that helps show the unity that's possible in the community," he said.