Multicultural Fellowship in South Carolina

Multicultural Fellowship in South Carolina
Multicultural Fellowship in South Carolina

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No Bias Among Believers—Being Intentional about Being a Multicultural Fellowship in South Carolina

Story by Carmel Palmer
Photos by Tom Price

Pastor Brennan AschlemanThis story about Calvary Chapel Northeast Columbia, SC, originally ran in Fall 2016, in Issue 69 of Calvary Chapel Magazine. Almost four years ago, Brennan Aschleman became the senior pastor, continuing—and extending—the legacy of Pastor Michael Frisina. “We continue to be a church that’s very blessed by a multicultural, ethnically diverse body,” he shared. The church has since become more involved in the community of Columbia, including actively in the city’s pro-life pregnancy center, Daybreak LifeCare. In addition, CC Northeast has pursued mission opportunities in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Puerto Rico. You can learn more about the fellowship at

Six-year-old Lexi burst in the back door, yelling, “Mom! I have a new friend in the house behind us! She wants me to come play!” Wendy looked down at her beautiful biracial daughter. With excitement and dread, she agreed to meet the child’s mother, Ellen. Knowing the stigma biracial couples still carry in the South, Wendy worried that, “like many times before, when she saw I was white her whole attitude would change. Instead, when she opened the door, I immediately sensed something different about her. Later I realized it was the Holy Spirit.” The girls and their mothers became close, but when Ellen invited Wendy to church, she replied stiffly, “I think I’m done trying church.”

Boys measure heights

Trayon (left) measures off his height to Brennan. Both lads are part of Calvary Chapel Northeast Columbia, SC—a fellowship that is intentional about loving one another regardless of race or ethnicity.

When Wendy had married Reggie Gilliard, an African-American, their families were mostly supportive. South Carolina churches were not. After Reggie drank from the shared communion cup his first Sunday at Wendy’s grandparents’ church, members decided that outsiders were unwelcome in Sunday morning services. Reggie became embittered toward church; the family stopped attending. They hoped moving to Columbia would help, but, Wendy reported, “In all the white churches I tried, people stared at my eldest white daughter and my two biracial children, but no one talked to or welcomed us.” They began attending Reggie’s mother’s Catholic Church, where Wendy was the only Caucasian. Her family was more accepted there, but some of the teaching troubled Wendy. She confessed, “I knew it wasn’t right; I just desperately wanted a church home for my kids.”

Family at service

With verse-by-verse Bible teaching, Reggie and Wendy Gilliard have grown spiritually at CC Northeast Columbia.

Ellen’s gentle coaxing eventually convinced Wendy to visit Calvary Chapel Northeast Columbia (CCNE). Wendy rejoiced, “From the moment I walked in, I knew I was home. There was some diversity there, but more than that, everyone there genuinely loved the Lord. They saw people, not skin color. When Pastor Michael Frisina started preaching, the Bible suddenly made sense to me.” Wendy and the children soon accepted Christ. Months after, Reggie did also. Twelve years later, Wendy declared, “Reggie says he’s never leaving this church. The Lord used CCNE to save our marriage. We had difficult times, even after we were saved, but Michael taught Reggie so much about being our family’s spiritual leader. Reggie said, ‘I can respect Michael because whatever he tells me to do, he does.’ CCNE is our spiritual family. When new people come, we love them like we were loved.”

Believers hug

Dr. Tiffany Howard (left), an Army veteran and physician, and Don Brock greet each other. Don, a Navy veteran, has been Tiffany’s patient at the Veterans Administration Medical Center for several years. They like to support opposite teams each year for the Army/Navy football game.

With less than 150 people, CCNE’s small yet diverse body is a huge counter-cultural statement in an area known for racial separation. While many local churches are exclusively Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, or Korean, Pastor Michael stated, “At our men’s meetings, you’ll see a 60-year-old African-American mentoring a 30-year-old white man and an older Asian man instructing a young Hispanic. They don’t see color; they see a brother in Christ. The Lord has always been bringing different people together into one body. We see it in the Bible, and also in the early days of Calvary Chapel. We are continuing in this legacy. “

Hard Ground

As a military family, the Frisinas took diversity for granted. When transferred to Ft. Jackson, SC, in 1996, they immediately began searching for churches in nearby Columbia. At the second church they visited, they were surprised to find themselves the only Caucasians among nearly 500 African-Americans. The Frisinas felt comfortable and welcomed, but so many people poked their heads in during Sunday school and stared during the sermon that they realized they were a distraction. They did not return, but the visit affected them profoundly.

Men laugh

Pastor Michael Frisina (right) jokes with Maurice Monroe after the service. Maurice is the worship team bass player and appreciates the expositional teaching of God’s Word at the church.

Continuing to search, they found local churches were racially separate and scripturally sparse. “People dressed well for church, but didn’t live well the rest of the week,” Michael’s wife Sue related. “We wanted to create change, but the traditional churches weren’t interested.” Instead, Sue felt God calling her to quit her job. Though a radical step for the family’s financial situation, it enabled her to start a racially diverse Bible study with women from her neighborhood and work. She used teaching tapes from Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith which she had been sharing since being discipled by Chuck and Kay in the 1970s. As the women’s faith deepened, so did their desire for a scripturally-sound church.

There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. Colossians 3:11

Young family worships

A Hispanic family, U.S. Air Force Airman Raul and Carisia Gandara, worship with their daughter. They appreciate the church’s diversity.

In the late ‘80s, while teaching at West Point, NY, Michael had led a Bible study for cadets. This study grew into CC West Point. Though ordained by Pastor Chuck in order to meet military requirements for chapel services, Michael had no intention of pastoring again. Sue remembered, “Through prayer, all the women felt that God wanted Michael to teach again, though none had ever heard him. One day during our study, Michael was home to meet a man coming to paint our house. Suddenly I heard loud cries and, looking outside, saw both men on the ground. Thinking someone was hurt, I asked the ladies to pray and ran outside. As I got closer, I realized the young man was sobbing with joy while giving his life to Christ. When he left, I asked Michael, ‘Where will you send him to church? We’re seasoned believers and we’re dying on the vine here—where can you send this new believer?’ He said, ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ and strode off. I didn’t know that for many weeks, God had been asking Michael on the way home from work, ‘Are you ready?’ Michael kept saying no. But after the painter, he finally said, ‘OK, Lord, I’m ready.’”

Women fellowship

Payton Kidwell (right) welcomes Bev Brock, who relocated from the Midwest. Different age groups are encouraged to interact.

Michael related, “I called Pastor Chuck again. He literally said, ‘Good luck—that’s a tough place. Hard hearts, hard ground. But if God’s in it, you’ll just have to persevere.’” Chuck commissioned the couple at the Deep South Pastors Conference. As their fellowship slowly grew, Michael said, “We found ourselves fulfilling our hopes of a blended congregation naturally as the Holy Spirit drew people hungry for God’s Word from multiple places.”

Growing in Unity

“Twenty years in the military taught me accountability and responsibility,” Michael declared. “If you don’t have them on the battlefield, people die. If you don’t have them in the church, people die spiritually. We take time to coach new people on why we exist and how to behave. You can come to CCNE any way you want, but you can’t stay the way you are. Everyone must be transformed by God’s Word.”

Girl meets boy

Stephanie and Elijah talk before children’s church. Elijah was adopted from Ethiopia by a Caucasian family.

Praise team member Maurice Monroe joined CCNE desiring more accountability. Growing up, Maurice poured anger toward his alcoholic father into sports, becoming a talented athlete. In college, a friend introduced Maurice to Christ. This friend, and others in the diverse church he attended, consistently challenged him. When Maurice moved to Columbia with his wife, he was disappointed by the lack of accountability in the African-American church they attended. He related, “They’d ask God to forgive you, but then they’d make excuses for you: ‘You’re human, everyone makes mistakes’—I knew something wasn’t right.” When first visiting CCNE, Maurice was skeptical that the kind pastor he towered over would be willing to step on his toes. One day Michael took him aside. Maurice’s sons had complained about his temper to their pastor. “He approached me in such a lovely way, sharing Scripture that made me more aware of what I needed to do as a godly parent. His willingness to pull me aside and say, ‘You don’t need to be doing that,’ made me believe he cared,” said Maurice. “I’m thankful that, unlike many church leaders, Michael’s open about his own struggles.”

Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart. 1 Peter 1:22

Women talk

Pastor Michael’s wife Sue (left) and hospitality coordinator Holley Cherry (center) tell a visitor about an upcoming women’s event. Hospitality is considered a key ministry at the church.

“At all-black or all-white churches I’ve attended,” Maurice expressed, “I’ve had to be careful about what I say. But at CCNE, I can just be me. I don’t think about color when I’m there.” CCNE’s counter-cultural community comes at a cost to many members of varying backgrounds, including Maurice, who are viewed as traitors to their own culture. He explained, “South Carolina has a strong racial history. Prejudice goes both ways—blacks can be very prejudiced toward whites because they’re focused on what’s been done to them. People tell me I believe a white man’s Gospel, that I don’t support blacks in spiritual things because I’m indoctrinated by whites, things like that. It used to bother me, but Michael’s encouraged me to bring the conversation back to the Bible whenever I’m attacked. Even in racial issues, he teaches us to rely on God’s Word, trusting God to bring His church together the way He wants.” Maurice hopes his wife, who still attends their previous church, will someday join him at CCNE.

Pastor greets ladies

Pastor Michael greets Cheryl Peltier, who is from the Philippines, after the Sunday service.

In 2015, a train struck Maurice while he was driving his semi. He had been working only two months since recovering from a previous accident. The second collision reinjured his left side, leaving him unemployed with a growing stack of unpaid bills. His wife then lost her job as well. “At first I was in panic mode,” Maurice admitted. “I’m an extremely independent person, and everything that could bail me out of this situation had been taken away. I had to totally depend on God.” Through individuals at CCNE, Maurice repeatedly experienced God’s provision. Gift cards were many times slipped into his hand. Near Thanksgiving, a couple presented him with a food basket so huge that the family still has some of it remaining. Meanwhile, he reported, “Michael has continued to study Scripture with me to show me God’s plan and the perspective He wants me to have—life isn’t about getting from God, but about being remade in Christ’s image. I’m used to fighting my own battles, but he keeps reminding me, ‘This isn’t your battle; it’s God’s.’”

Baby touches head

Aubrie Gandara pats the top of Pastor Michael’s head, which many of CCNE’s babies find fascinating.

One Family

“CCNE’s diversity is bigger than just race,” declared Shannon McNulty, who co-leads CCNE’s youth group with her husband Mike. “We have people of many different personalities, generations and backgrounds. I grew up in an African–American church, and it seemed everyone had a similar idea of how things should be done. But heaven’s going to be all of us, not just one group. I think CCNE’s different racial and cultural dynamics help us care for whoever walks in. Unconditional love is something our pastor exemplifies and preaches; I’ve seen how that welcoming attitude trickles down to the youth. Whoever comes in, however they come, our kids welcome them with open arms.” The McNultys strive to pass on the emphasis on discipleship and hands-on service they received at CCNE to the youth through service projects, ministry involvement, and a weekly apologetics study.

Men talk

Worship leader Wayne Prock (left) is encouraged by Victor, a recent transplant from Los Angeles. Wayne helped Victor find housing when he first moved to the area.

“Coming to Christ means leaving our culture to join His,” Sue proclaimed. “Every culture has social norms to abandon, but also something to glean. A woman who came to us from an African-American church said to me, ‘So you’re the first lady?’ She explained that in their culture the pastor’s wife is referred to that way as a sign of respect. It caught me off guard, but 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 talks about showing esteem for those caring for your souls. I don’t accept the title because I don’t want to lord over anyone, but being a pastor’s wife is rough sometimes, and knowing they have my back matters. Our church’s Japanese family has taught me honor and hard work; our Southerners, hospitality and kindness; our Hispanics, tremendous enthusiasm for life.” When the Frisinas’ newborn grandson, Weston, first attended CCNE, Kashi, a two-year-old African-American boy, announced, “That’s my baby.” When Weston cried in the nursery, Kashi would hear from the toddler room and demand, “Someone bring my baby.” As Weston grew and learned to walk, Kashi lifted him up whenever he fell. “Their relationship is a representation of our congregation,” said Sue. “With love, we’ve become one family.”

For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:14a (HCSB)

Pastor hugs boys

Pastor Michael hugs best friends Sean McNulty (left) and Elijah Gose as they play and roughhouse together after the service.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.