Chris Fleece grew up in Grove City and has since lived all over central Ohio, including in Gahanna, Pataskala and Dublin.

Chris Fleece grew up in Grove City and has since lived all over central Ohio, including in Gahanna, Pataskala and Dublin.

Now 37, the Rev. Chris Fleece had not previously called the Northland area home until he became associate pastor at the Cooke Road Church of the Nazarene in March 2010. What struck him about his new surroundings, Fleece said last week, was the amazing amount of cultural diversity on display, compared with the other areas where he had resided.

Diversity and divisiveness can sometimes go hand in hand, he said.

"People can be afraid of one another just because of their cultural background or what they look like," Fleece said.

He is hoping to bridge those differences with a two-day conference, June 3-4 called "Honoring Bridges."

The gathering, which is intended to help dispel that fear of "otherness," will be held in the sanctuary of the church, 1389 E. Cooke Road. It has the blessing of the church's lead pastor, the Rev. West Frederick, according to Fleece.

The first day, the conference will run from 7 to 9 p.m. and feature guest speaker Nathan Emmelhainz, who is preparing to depart for Pakistan on an assignment as a relief and development worker. (See related story below.)

The event will run from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 4. A highlight of the second day will be a visit to the different restaurants and stores that cater to Northland residents who came to the United States from many different Latin American and African nations, Fleece said. That will serve to enlighten conference participants - and Fleece is hoping to have as many as 100 people - about diversity in the community.

Conference attendees will return to the church to continue discussing ways in which people separated by their backgrounds can still reach across that divide, he said.

"It can happen right as it's going along," he said. "That's our hope."

Although not involved in or familiar with the Honoring Bridges conference, Northland Community Council community outreach and relations committee chairman Brandon L. Boos applauded the spirit of the event. The committee, formed as part of a reorganization of the NCC, in part is intended to reach out to people not currently involved in local civic groups, particularly those of different cultural backgrounds.

"Northland really is a great place to live, and it's not by chance," Boos wrote in an e-mail. "A lot of credit for that belongs to the civic associations, church groups, businesses and private citizens who have worked so tirelessly to make and keep it that way.

"What we see is the little stuff - new playground equipment, canned-food drives, landscaped highway ramps - but there's a lot more to it. These groups are cultural leaders, and they set a tone for all of Northland."

Initially, Fleece said he was planning a conference of Northland church leaders to discuss ways of reaching out to the diverse cultures in the region. It was intended to help them "get them out of their safety zone and meet their neighbors," he said.

Two events spurred him to broaden the scope for the gathering.

"God really started doing some different things," Fleece said.

The first event was a "Back to School Bash" at the church in which free backpacks and other supplies were distributed. White, black, Somali and Hispanic people flocked to the church, Fleece recalled.

"Sometimes it was hard to talk, but when you're loving them, they can see your actions and they don't have to understand your words fully," he said.

One problem: Church officials innocently made the mistake of including corndogs among the food being served to participants in the school supply giveaway. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork products.

The second event, Fleece said, was his attendance at the Northland Nonprofit Summit on May 11 at the Haimerl Center. Among the 60 or so organizations represented were many that aimed to help the different minority populations in the Northland area.

Fleece anticipates making Honoring Bridges an annual event and hopes that it can build some momentum.

"I wanted to see what ways we can break down those walls instead of having the fear of being different," he said immediately after the nonprofit gathering.

"I'd like anyone who comes to begin befriending their neighbor," Fleece said last week.