The Rev. Wendell Estep and the Rev. Charles Jackson decided to become friends a quarter century ago because, as pastors of two of Columbia’s most influential churches, they felt a duty to be Christ-like role models.
BY BOB MCALISTER
Charles Jackson needed help.
After the George Floyd killing by a white police officer, the Rev. Jackson, pastor of the predominantly African American Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia, felt something a pastor isn’t supposed to feel: rage.
“I was so angry and hurt by that (killing), and I remembered my upbringing in Lexington County as a boy with my three brothers and me peeping out the window watching the KKK burn a cross across the road to intimidate us,” he said. It was one of many frightening memories that came storming back.
“I was hurting so bad that I called up my friend, Wendell Estep, and told him how I felt. I told him, ‘Wendell, I need your prayers, man, because my hurts are coming back, and I’m angry, and I want you to pray for me.’”
The Rev. Wendell Estep is white. He grew up in a small Texas town without black people. He pastored Columbia’s predominantly white First Baptist Church before retiring in 2018 after 32 years.
“I called Wendell to pray for me because I believe so much in his heart,” Jackson said. “That’s because of the years that we’ve invested into our friendship.”
Twenty-five years to be exact.
True friendship between a black guy who grew up without white friends and a white guy who grew up without black friends was far from certain when they first met. They decided to try to make a go of it — “try” being the operative word — because, well, Jesus said to do it, and as pastors of two influential churches, they felt a duty to be Christ-like role models.
“I said I’d try to be Charles’ friend, but I didn’t know if I’d like him or not,” Estep said.
“I said the same thing,” Jackson retorted, laughing. “I love that crazy fellow.”
Odds were against it. Different colors, backgrounds, cultures and political philosophies make for lively arguments on cable news, but not friendship. After all, we’re supposedtohatepeoplewhoaren’tlikeus,right? The ecclesiastical odd couple defied the odds. Their families have bonded and vacation together. Their two sons, both ministers, are friends.
Lunch with the two can turn on a dime: Thick theology one minute, merciless kidding the next. They are completely unfiltered around each other. “I can say things to CharlesIcan’tsaytoanyoneelse,”Estepsaid. “I’m the same way,” Jackson said.
That trust did not develop easily. It took time. “Whites and blacks don’t trust each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not spent time with each other,” Jackson said. “Wendell has given me the opportunity to enter into his white world about which I knew little, and I gave him the opportunity to enter into the black world about which he knew little.”
A quarter century of exploring each other’s world has informed them, softened them and made them better people. But they emphasize they had a solid foundation on which to build.
“Charles and I are united by blood, the blood of Jesus, and we are brothers in Him,” Estep said. “We are united by ideology; we both believe the Bible is the word of God. We’re united in purpose; we both are preachers. That is a three-cord strand not easily broken.”
They think race relations are worse now than when they met 25 years ago, largely due to erosion of the Judeo-Christian value system, which polling has documented. While they encourage all people to participate fully in the democratic process, they see limits.
Asked if they are optimistic that race relations and societal upheaval will improve, each pauses. Their ultimate answer is the same: no, with a caveat.
“Society is nothing more than individuals occupying the same space,” Estep said. “Hearts have to be changed, and government can’t do that. Only God can.”
“I’m not very optimistic unless God in His divine providence intervenes some way in His infinite wisdom,” Jackson said. “But I’m not without hope, and my hope is in Jesus Christ.”
They’ll soon go the polls and vote differently, but that’s OK with them. After all, they’re friends.
Bob McAlister owns a public relations business in Columbia. Estep was his pastor for 30 years, and he became friends with Jackson through Estep.