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Black History Project traces connections to SBC heritage

PHOENIX (BP)–The good, bad and even some of the ugly were discussed during the first-ever session of the Black History Project.

Participants and an enthusiastic audience gathered at Bethesda Community Baptist Church in Phoenix June 14 to hear how people of African heritage have related to the SBC since its inception as a denomination in 1845.

“For the first time, we come together to focus on the history of African Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Roy Cotton in opening remarks. One of five cochairmen for the event, which was hosted by the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network, Cotton is the network’s outgoing president and a regional church planting consultant for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

“It’s impossible” for a denomination that was started over the issue of slavery to have gotten to the place where its second vice president is of African heritage — E.W. McCall Sr., pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in La Puente, Calif. — “and not have a story, a good story, a rich story, a deep story,” said Kevin Smith, another event cochairman and a Ph.D. student at Southern Seminary.

“But we have to tell the whole story, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Smith said, and as the story is told, “we’ll get to the point of God’s people working together for the exaltation of Christ.”

Smith called for the denomination to financially support the study of African Americans’ involvement in the SBC. Until now, he said, it has been perhaps a chapter, paragraph or even footnote in what has been written in Southern Baptist history.

“You can pay for what you want to pay for,” Smith said. “In order for this to be done in an effective way, the SBC leadership needs to get behind it — the North American Mission Board, International Mission Board [and] LifeWay.”

The American Baptist Historical Society probably has the largest collection of African American Baptist church records, reported Bill Sumners, director of the SBC’s Historical Library and Archives. The SBC’s former Historical Commission in the 1970s “assembled and microfilmed an almost complete run of the existing national annuals related to African American Baptists,” Sumners also noted during his report of what is available and what is missing in the search for information on Baptists of African heritage.

Among other speakers:

— George McCalep Jr., pastor of Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., and president of the SBC’s African American Fellowship, recounted the formation of the fellowship, while Cotton spoke on the formation of the Denominational Servant’s Network.

— Leon May, pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, talked about that church’s past, present and future. Greater Friendship in 1951 was the first African American congregation to join the SBC in the 20th century. In an era of separatism, most African American churches had left the SBC by the 1870s.

— Sid Smith, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division, gave an overview of 50 years of African American progress in the SBC.

Andre Punch, church growth and African American consultant with BGCT moderated a panel discussion on seminary education. Panel participants were Smith; McCalep; McCall; Leroy Gainey, pastor of First Baptist Church, Vacaville, Calif., and a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary; and Sadie McCalep, George McCalep’s wife and coordinator of career/technology education in the Atlanta school system.

“It needs to be taught that the black church culture brings so much to the table for everyone to feed on,” George McCalep said. “We bring a rich worship experience that is biblical in nature. … We bring administration skills that lead to long tenures for pastors.”

Smith spoke of the inherent tension between “party-line” instruction and the need for a variety of perspectives in seminary education.

“Blacks can man a [seminary] class and teach as well as anyone else,” McCall said. “In 2003 we do not have the open door we should to get to where we ought to be. … What we don’t value, we don’t respect.”

Gainey listed areas in which educators of African heritage needed to do more work.

“We have to do more writing,” he said. “If you don’t put it in print, it won’t get taught.” The books produced need to lend themselves to seminary instruction, with learning outcomes and bibliographies.

Smith agreed, saying people of African heritage need to understand the “system” of Southern Baptist education.

“The system is to have something in writing,” he said. “When you put it on paper, the system thinks it’s ready for discussion.” For blacks to have an impact on the SBC: “You need to know how to operate within the system.”

The Denominational Servants Network produced The Journal of African American Southern Baptist History as part of the Black History Project. The first issue was distributed at the seminar. Packaged with an ethnic bright kinte cloth look, it would stand out among other journals in seminary and college libraries, Gainey said.

“The journal is a very important tool, but it is only one tool,” Gainey said. “There is much more about the African American experience that must be written.”

At the foundational level, the whole Bible needs to be taught in seminary, Sadie McCalep said. “Adam was formed by God from the clay,” she said. “What color was it?”

“I believe the root of racism comes from a lack of affirmation of the biblical black heritage,” George McCalep noted. “All these other things are symptoms of the real thing.”