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Dr. Forrest Harris

When Forrest Harris finished speaking at the new Chattanooga Hamilton County Black Caucus' first prayer breakfast, most of the crowd stood and applauded.

But the American Baptist College president's message of inclusion for all, including Muslims and the LGBT community, left a few audience members wary of backlash.

Harris encouraged his audience to seek justice and love regardless of their religious affiliation. The crowd of more than 60 people clapped throughout his sermon.

But Westside Baptist Church Pastor and event co-host Timothy Careathers said in closing remarks the message may cause some pastors and parishioners to distance themselves, but he asked for tolerance.

"The Hamilton County Black Caucus, we're ecumenical, with people of different faiths," Careathers said. "If you think God only mourns when a Christian dies, then there is something wrong with your God. If you think God only mourns when Baptists die " he said, pausing. "I believe the same God who held [the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther] King is the same God who held Malcolm [X]."

Careathers is a founding member of the Black Caucus, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group formed to mobilize registered voters to vote. Founders say the group also plans to hold elected officials more accountable to constituents' best interests.

Other founding members include local Nation of Islam leader Kevin Muhammad and Jermaine Harper, owner of the media company Urban Voice.

The crowd on Saturday also included members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Christ.

The Black Caucus hosted the free breakfast to pray for the country and offer a message of "hope, love and inspiration during this election season," according to its news release.

The Rev. Paul McDaniel spoke in support of Careathers and said the Westside Baptist pastor is continuing the work he tried to do in founding the Unity Group in 1969.

"I think the Lord has particularly anointed him," said McDaniel, retired pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church and longtime Hamilton County commissioner. "You labor and you hope that somebody will come around and take over. The Lord let it be certified in this area that he has gotten somebody to follow what I tried to do."

The Unity Group, which still exists, helped to get John P. Franklin elected as the first black Chattanooga city commissioner in 1971.

Harris encouraged the the prayer breakfast audience to pray for the healing of the country, saying, "We need an alternative to what we see on the national scene." And he encouraged them to take courage as they organize to "create politics worthy of the human spirit."

He said the nation is split between two altars: one of white supremacy and one of love, justice and freedom.

Harris continued: "But we meet amidst the state of politics in this country that if somebody doesn't bow before the right altar and get some clarity about our humanity, our profound inter-relatedness; if somebody doesn't bow before the right altar, we will be like that canary in a coal mine, continuously breathing in the word's toxicity, and eventually die."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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