When J. D. and Zaporia Hill first visited Gateway Church nearly 10 years ago, there were hardly any families who looked like theirs. Although the Hills felt welcome, the church was predominantly white, so they often wondered if they could ever truly be part of the community. It was uncomfortable at times as they searched for commonalities among the crowds that would give them a sense of connection. There was a looming barrier, whether real or perceived. That barrier stayed in place for years, but so did the Hills.
“The first five years were somewhat of a struggle to feel accepted,” Zaporia says. “If you can look at a person and spot something that makes you immediately say, ‘Oh, that person is like me,’ then it’s really easy for you to approach them. But when you can’t find that, you begin to feel awkward and out of place.”
As a pastor’s kid who dedicated her life to Jesus at five years old, Zaporia was raised in a churchgoing family in Fort Worth. Their congregation was African-American, and church services were rooted in black culture and Baptist tradition. In addition to pastoral duties, Zaporia’s father started a ministry to encourage and foster racial oneness in the Church and raised her and her sister to embrace all people. Zaporia didn’t have a problem loving everyone, but she couldn’t deny how safe and comfortable it felt to worship with other African-Americans.
In 2005, when Zaporia was 19, her parents relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, for ministry reasons. Zaporia wanted to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, so she joined them in the city—home to some of the most successful artists in Christian music. It was during this time that she was introduced to Bethel World Outreach Church where she became a member and experienced a different kind of church life. It was a new and intriguing experience—the nontraditional church services and multicultural congregation were the complete opposite of what she was used to, but she loved it and her spiritual life grew.
After Zaporia and J. D. married and had their first son, the Hills moved back to Fort Worth in 2008 to be near both sides of their families. They immediately began looking for a church to attend and through an online search found Gateway in Southlake. They researched everything from the mission and history of the church to its ministries and pastoral staff and felt what they read aligned with what God wanted for their family. When they finally attended their first service at the church, now home to The King’s University, the Hills realized they were in the right place. After regular attendance they had a deep desire to find community for their family but found it difficult to connect.
“It was a big church, but we weren’t afraid of big churches—it was the sense of not seeing a lot of people that looked like us,” Zaporia says.
J. D. says they were experiencing spiritual growth unlike any other time in their lives so they continued to attend and looked for serving opportunities. When the Southlake Campus relocated next to State Highway 114, Zaporia served in the Gateway Café. The Hills remained hopeful they would find the meaningful relationships they were seeking and resolved to stay at Gateway no matter how long it took. They also recognized the enemy’s tactics of creating a sense of racial disunity in church situations where there may have been none.
“We knew the ministry that God placed in this church was something we were holding onto, so whether we felt good all the time or not, we knew what was here was something we needed,” Zaporia says. “That’s what’s kept us steady more than anything—we saw the growth in our children’s lives and nothing could compare to that for us.”
The pivotal moment for their family came when the Hills decided to join a Gateway Group. Their group leaders were white, and the Hills were the only black family at every Wednesday meeting. After a few visits, the families began learning more about each other and discovered their similarities while breaking down cultural stereotypes. Relationships started to build that were a blessing to the Hills and their three boys—Noah, 11; Micaiah, 9; and Langston, 7.
“They loved us, and we loved them,” Zaporia says. “Our group leaders had a little girl and my kids fell in love with her and they would play; they wrapped their arms around us, and we felt comfortable. We were the only black people there but that didn’t bother us. It was really about connection and that’s what we had—a connection.”
Although Zaporia and J. D. were able to break down some walls through joining a group, it didn’t happen overnight. It was a journey—one that required intentionality and commitment on their part and the part of the community they thought they’d never connect with.
The Hills now attend the Frisco Campus after moving to McKinney in March 2018, and Zaporia has started her own group to connect with and support other married women. She encourages others who may be on a similar journey to look past themselves, become part of the solution, and realize God places us in churches and communities for His purposes.
“If God has brought you to Gateway and you’re seeking more of Him, you’re here for a reason,” she says. “Don’t think only of what you want and need. Let God use whomever He wants to use to make an impact in your life.”