NASHVILLE (BP) — An expressed love of missions, education and the Gospel flow from the life experiences of Florida’s Archalena Coats and Louisiana’s Carolyn Fountain, the first two Black women to serve on the SBC Executive Committee.
While uniquely different, each woman told Baptist Press of a childhood enhanced by godly parents, grandmothers who thrived in community missions and grandfathers who were pastors. They both point to Great Commission-focused husbands, motherhood, women’s ministry leadership and Southern Baptist missions.
Coats, a longtime educator, didn’t realize she was the first African American woman appointed to the SBC Executive Committee when she began her service in June 2019, months before the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although I am African American,” Coats said, “I do not go into ministry opportunities because I’m Black. When I did go to my first meeting, … I walk in the room and quite certainly I did not see any other Black females there; however, I don’t know who served before me, I don’t know any of that. So that wasn’t an issue for me.
“I don’t really think I understand the weight of what I do. I know it’s important and I know that God called me for such a time as this, to do it,” said Coats. “It is absolutely a privilege to be able to be a part — but I have to say it — as a Black female and be accepted at a table that we’ve never sat at. Do you understand? That’s pretty heavy.”
Members were very accommodating as she learned the ins and outs of the Executive Committee, Coats said.
“In retrospect, I would have to say this is quite overwhelming. The way I was welcomed onto the EC was nothing short of phenomenal. No one made me feel as though I was any less than my counterparts that are not Black. I felt like I was important,” Coats said. “But it has been a wonderful opportunity to see the ins and outs of how we operate in such an orderly and God-focused way.”
For Fountain, accepting the appointment to the Executive Committee at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting required consideration.
“This was a call to service that I really did have to do some praying about. But in the end…I felt like it’s all part of my call,” said Fountain. “If I’m going to be a part of the SBC, then I have to be willing to serve—to do my part. These are kind of challenging times of course for the SBC, but you’re either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.
“And if I can—in any way, with any input, with any divine guidance—be a part of helping us to get to the place in our Convention where we see God’s hand at work and we’re following His guidance and we’re working to His glory and I can be a part of that,” Fountain said, “then I want to be a part of that.”
Micah 6:8 captured Fountain’s attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, about a year before her appointment to the EC.
“With all of this discussion about Critical Race [Theory] and the role of women and with all of this, that passage has said to me what God wants us to do,” she said. “He wants us to act justly, to love mercy and just to walk humbly with Him—to put Him first as the focus. And if we stop doing that, we can just take down our SBC banner.”
She decided to “be a part of helping us, not just white Southern Baptists, but helping all of us to understand that this is what God requires of us, that we treat people right, do the right thing by people, that we are merciful because we have received His mercy, and that we just keep being submissive to Him,” Fountain said. “Let God be God.”
Coats has been immersed in Southern Baptist life since her preteen years at Glendale Baptist Church in Miami, which in October 1969 became the first African American congregation to affiliate with the Florida Baptist Convention. Joseph Coats Sr., the grandfather of her husband Patrick Coats, was the pastor when the church became Southern Baptist just six years after being chartered in 1963. Glendale introduced Coats to Acteens, a Woman’s Missionary Union ministry for girls.
Her grandparents, Estella and Cleveland Williams, heavily mentored her along with her mother Brenda Williams Scavella. Coats describes her late grandmother Estella Williams, who died decades ago, as a Proverbs 31 women who ministered to the wives of pastors and deacons. Her grandfather Cleveland Williams was a Pentecostal pastor until his death in November 2020 from several health complications at age 88.
“I fell in love with serving others watching my grandparents serve in ministry as a child,” she said. But when her mother enrolled her in Acteens, “it was like there was a whole other world of ministry that I had not tapped into. It was there that I fell in love with missions, doing missions, learning about missions, and actually understanding that I am a missionary, regardless of the fact if I never travel to another country or if I’m not a full-time missionary on the field, that I had a responsibility to go and do and support missions.”
She recalls summer camps at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center, and cherishes her work as a leader in Girls in Action and Baptist Young Women Bible studies.
“It was there that those WMU ladies kind of mentored me, not only for Christian life, but for my future marriage. It was kind of like that Titus model where they taught you what a godly mother and wife looks like,” she said, “because imagine I’m 18 years old, I don’t have a clue. They really nurtured me to be the woman that I am today. That was the grassroots of it.”
Coats and her husband Patrick, the Florida Baptist Convention’s Black multicultural church catalyst, are parents to 23-year-old Patrick Coats II, 20-year-old Joy and 18-year-old Faith.
“This is wonderful moment for me in my life. My last child just graduated so I am at a point on my journey where I am rediscovering some avenues that God would have me to go down, because my years have been consumed with not only ministry service but being a mom first—because that’s where our first ministry is.”
She worked professionally as a teacher nearly 20 years and just completed her eighth year as an elementary school principal. Now, Coats is relaunching Inner Beauty First Inc., a mentoring ministry to girls and young women she founded seven years ago, and will incorporate her daughters in the ministry.
Fountain, who is also the first Black woman to serve as president of the Louisiana WMU, discovered missions and ministry during her childhood in Tallulah, La., under the mentorship of her grandmother Mattie Israel, who lived to be 94. Her grandfather Theodore Israel was a pastor in Tallulah. She describes her late parents, Odell and James Jones Sr., as strong Christians with servant spirits.
“My grandmother was kind of like the community missionary, unofficially. She just took care of people in the community and she kind of introduced me to that whole spirit of caring for your neighbors,” Fountain said. “It didn’t have to be a family member or close friend, but if she heard that someone was sick she was going to check on them. And she didn’t drive, so she walked pretty much everywhere.”
Whatever was needed, whether house cleaning or yard work, “she would pick us up from home and take us with her,” Fountain said. “My brothers would do yard work, my sisters and I would clean house. I was the oldest so I mostly ended up in the kitchen.”
Fountain’s childhood was beneficial when she and Leroy moved to Atlanta in 1979 for him to attend Morehouse School of Religion before he felt a call to ministry. Convinced that he would be a philosophy professor, Leroy Fountain was instead recruited by the Home Mission Board, now the North American Mission Board. As he served the Lord as a church planter, pastor and denominational worker in years-long stints in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana, she was introduced to WMU.
She helped WMU expand its ministry among African-American Southern Baptist churches and began leading WMU leadership training for women. She embarked on a career in Southern Baptist denominational work that included 13 years with the Alabama Baptist Convention as a campus minister at Alabama State University as her husband planted, revitalized and led churches in Montgomery.
It was then that Fountain also developed a passion for ministry to women.
“As I saw women working in the church, I wanted to make sure that we were truly working to make disciples, not to just have a group of women coming together, but to actually have women coming together who were learning about missions, what God had called us to do,” she said. “He didn’t call us just to come together and enjoy each other and have fun. But He called us to make disciples, to teach and to lead, and that is what continues to drive me, is reaching women where they are.”
When her husband began promoting retirement planning to Black pastors as an employee of the Annuity Board, now GuideStone Christian Resources, Fountain directed the Early Childhood Learning Center at Singing Hills Baptist Church, helped organized Sisters Who Care to increase WMU’s reach to Black women, and began teaching in the Dallas Independent School District.
Fountain was called to lead the Louisiana WMU after her husband accepted a post at the New Orleans Baptist Association.
She and her husband are parents to Charena Denise Jones, Marsha Lynn Fountain and Bridgette Alexandria Fountain, and have five grandchildren.
“When I look at the path that we’ve traveled,” Fountain said, “I can see very clearly … God’s hand in getting us to where we are today.”