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7/17/97 Church resolves uncertainty over its racial openness

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–It was Easter Sunday, and both men had made a decision.
Inside a church building that many had walked away from, the men and their families — one black, one white — walked down the aisle, side by side, desiring membership in the Birmingham, Ala., congregation that can now be called home by both races.
The new pastor of Birmingham’s Central Park Baptist Church, Danny Sumerlin, was one of the men who came forward with his family. He called the gesture “beautifully symbolic” and said it slammed the door shut on any reservations about whether blacks and whites could coexist in the congregation.
For about seven years prior to Sumerlin’s arrival, the church had wrestled with whether to leave the predominantly black community in which it now found itself, and its membership had declined with the growing uncertainty on how the church would handle the race issue.
Central Park at one time had the biggest Sunday school attendance in the state — up to 2,400 in the late 50s — and such notables as Billy Graham had graced its pulpit.
The congregation’s decision to stay in the community came down to a secret-ballot vote. Sumerlin described the vote as close, but the church voted to stay.
That is why Sumerlin can now call Charles Newborn part of his church family. Newborn, along with his wife and three teenage children, also took those crucial steps down the aisle toward racial unification on Easter. Both families and other church members say they are ready to move beyond segregated churches.
“I have a vision for Central Park,” Newborn said. “For it to become a mecca, a melting pot which brings together all the races as a whole.”
James Coley, chairman of the deacons, said he believes the Lord has a purpose for keeping the church where it is.
“People felt there is a need for a Southern Baptist church in this area,” he said. “In the beginning, a lot of people wanted to move, but somebody had to stay to reach people for Christ in this neighborhood.”
Coley said he is already seeing progress in the church, which he credits in part to Sumerlin being called as pastor.
Sumerlin said he believes the church is “poised and ready” to enter the next century with a new attitude of racial harmony.
“God has been too good to this church to pack up and leave,” Sumerlin said. “Once we made the decision to stay, it was time to regroup and begin ministering to the community.”
Sumerlin added that Central Park has one of the most loving congregations he has ever been a part of. Now that the church is no longer struggling over loving and reaching people of any color, Sumerlin said he has a great responsibility that he’s ready to take, noting, “I really feel God has prepared me all my life for this ministry.”

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  • Jason Skinner