As a former drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, Cyndi Wunder is no stranger to dealing with trauma and crisis.

Neither are the residents of Jasper, Texas, where on June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr. — a 49-year-old African-American — was dragged behind a pick-up truck to his death by three men who were subsequently convicted of his murder. One was later executed for the crime, which eventually led to the passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.

For Wunder — a native of the Northwest, who was called in December 2014 as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Jasper — 17 years “feels like a long time ago.” Not so for the people of Jasper, for whom the events of 1998, and their aftermath, are still current, fresh and raw.

Well before the congregation extended the call to Wunder, its leaders had been engaged in the hard work of defining the church’s mission by acknowledging Jasper’s painful past, its racially charged present, and the church’s own history.

The congregation decided to call a pastor whose primary goals would be to work toward racial reconciliation and to promote healing. Toward that end, it formed and incorporated Peace Beyond Understanding — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to promoting peace and justice for all people — in the fall of 2014. The church intentionally created the position as bivocational, envisioning a candidate who would serve half time as the nonprofit’s director and half time as the church’s pastor.

“Here we are in this time in our nation where we are dealing with Ferguson, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and New York,” says Wunder, “and here is this church in Jasper engaged in a visioning process with the help of the Presbytery of New Covenant before I even received the call. And the one thing that was on the hearts of all of the session members unanimously was racial division.”

Wunder was called to the church — which averages 17 in worship — through the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Small Church Residency Program, which held its orientation and commissioning service for new pastoral residents Feb. 9–12. Launched in 2009 and originally named For Such a Time as This, the program is focused on spiritual, vocational and congregational transformation.

Although its name and application process have changed — with candidates and congregations now simply indicating their interest in the program on their personal and ministry information forms on the Church Leadership Connection, the online matching and referral system for the PC(USA) — the program’s goal of pairing small, underserved congregations in rural, small-town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates remains the same. 

Wunder — a 2012 graduate Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was then a candidate under the care of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area — first entered the search process in August 2014. She says she was matched with the Jasper church almost immediately.

“It happened so quickly,” Wunder says. “I made an immediate connection with the church. I was incredibly impressed with the people’s willingness to put themselves out there, to take risks, and to engage in a different process of trying to gain trust among people who have no reason to trust us. It’s hard to look at this and say that the hand of God wasn’t in it.”

When Wunder arrived in December 2014, the church was already making plans to take part in Jasper’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. march. And so, on January 19, she and one member of the church simply “showed up.”

“We had no banner, no T-shirts like some of the churches,” Wunder says. “We just wanted to ‘be with’ and show our support. We were received with incredible grace.” She, the one church member, Jasper’s police chief, and a Roman Catholic priest were the only four white people — among some 150 participants — who made the march that day.

“I found out later that one of the church members was afraid to step out and march with us but was willing to come to the edge and saw us,” says Wunder. “I know that there are people here in the church and in the broader community who are afraid for me and afraid for our safety. What we’re doing is kind of an audacious thing in a town that still struggles with racism, but I don’t feel threatened.”

The march concluded with the annual Sing with One Voice event, which was initiated following Byrd’s murder to help unite the community. “It is the only instance of intentionally desegregated worship in Jasper that I know of,” Wunder says. “This year 18 churches were represented. I was the only woman minister.”

Wunder says that while there were some nice conversations during the march, she felt the impact of her participation days later in small, personal encounters. “A woman approached me at the grocery store and said, ‘I know you,’” Wunder recalls. “As we talked about the march, I thought to myself, ‘I know I’m not supposed to greet you like family, but I’m going to do it anyway.’ The question for all of us is, how can we actually create and maintain such relationships? The question is, how can we follow Christ and be more kind, compassionate and loving?”

“The Small Church Residency Program: Where the Needs of Christ’s Church and the Gifts of First-Call Pastors Meet,” a free webinar hosted by the Company of New Pastorsgeared to pastors and congregational and mid council leaders, will be offered Feb. 24 at 2:00 p.m. EST. The event is open to all, and registration is quick and easy.