JACKSON, Miss. (BP) — Baptists in Mississippi stepped to the fore in worship and dialogue across racial lines this summer.
First Baptist Church in Jackson hosted “Stronger Together – A Night of Unity” Aug. 25 to honor the witness of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a gunman killed the pastor and eight others at an evening Bible study in mid-June.
The Stronger Together service blended the voices of First Baptist’s Sanctuary Choir and the Mississippi Mass Choir and featured messages by Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd and National Baptist Convention USA President Jerry Young.
In July, the first “Can We Talk?” Mississippi Black Church Leadership Conference was sponsored by the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board at the Jackson-area Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton.
The Stronger Together event in Jackson, which packed First Baptist’s auditorium, included an emphasis on Christian unity in Mississippi and America at a time of volatile racial tensions in many communities.
L. Lavon Gray, First Baptist’s minister of music, was a key organizer. “After the tragic church shootings in Charleston, the Lord impressed on my heart a desire for First Baptist Jackson to showcase the positive things taking place with race relations in the city of Jackson,” Gray said.
“Because of our longtime relationship with the Mississippi Mass Choir, I reached out to [choir executive director] Jerry Mannery about the possibility of conducting a joint night of worship featuring our combined choirs. As we began the collaborative process, we invited [Christian-based] Ballet Magnificat to join us in the presentation.”
Mannery agreed the timing was right for such an event.
“Amos 3:3 asks the rhetorical question, ‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed?'” Mannery said. “As the body of Christ, the only thing we can absolutely agree upon is that Jesus is Lord. Stronger Together – A Night of Unity afforded us the opportunity to state and celebrate it loud and clear.”
Mannery said the worship service was “amazing on many levels — conceived and executed within four weeks with no budget, without rehearsals and with interdenominational approval. Indeed, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, declared in his message, “I say to Satan tonight, in the name of Jesus the Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords, we stand against all racism in the United States and may Jesus put it to an end, to His honor and His glory, forever and ever … and I say enough is enough.”
Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, recounted reading a story about Mahatma Gandhi, who had attended church in South Africa. “After he left, there were a number of persons who asked him questions. Someone asked him, ‘Gandhi, why won’t you become a Christian?’ To which Gandhi replied, ‘I would become a Christian if I could just see one.’
“I would to God that Gandhi was here tonight,” Young said. “What a tremendous display of what it means to be a part of that ecclesia that called out crowds.”
In attendance were Wayne Singleton, minister of music at Mother Emanuel Church, and his wife Myra who received a standing ovation when they came to the platform to speak.
“I am so overwhelmed of the love that has been shown to us since June 17,” Wayne Singleton said to the crowd. “There is no other place I would rather be than right here, right now. June 17 changed the lives of many, and we’re still working through it, but our faith has kept us strong. We have learned the power of forgiveness.”
Gray presented the Singletons with a mounted promotional poster of the event that had been signed by the members of the First Baptist choir and the Mississippi Mass Choir. They received another standing ovation as they returned to their seats.
Singleton told Mississippi Public Broadcasting after the service, “Right now, I’m just feeling really revived to know that this tragedy [in Charleston] has affected everyone across the nation. To see this community come together in unity says a lot. It sends a great message.”
Singleton, when he returned to Charleston, planned to “tell everybody what took place here, and let them know that everyone’s thinking about us and praying for us.”
(Streaming video of the two-hour event can be viewed at firstbaptistjackson.org/resources/media/media-library/stronger-together-a-night-of-unity.)
The July 16-18 Can We Talk? conference drew 250 participants from across Mississippi and from Alabama and Tennessee.
“There were black and white, young adults and senior adults, Southern Baptists, National Baptists, United Methodists, Assembly of God and nondenominational participants,” said Chris McNairy, founder of Urban Fusion Network, who served as the conference’s facilitator.
Jim Futral, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB), noted, “For anyone who came to the conference, they left with their vision enlarged, their hearts uplifted and a better understanding of how much we need each other to reach our state and our world for Christ.”
David Michel, MBCB associate executive director for mission strategy who supervised planning for the conference, said, “Can We Talk? opened an often-neglected topic among church leaders regarding the racial segregation of Sunday morning worship times and suggested ways of collaborating together better in the future.
“One of the best results was the participation of influential black leaders from across Mississippi who are open to designing and implementing collaborative Gospel initiatives in their communities,” Michel said.
“This was a first-time-ever conference of this type,” Futral said, “so in hindsight we see room for improvement. On the other hand, it would be virtually impossible to enlarge on the great efforts made by so many to make the conference successful, and I don’t know that it would be possible to have enlisted better conference speakers or leaders. The Lord used them and blessed all of us.”
Among the featured speakers were T. Vaughn Walker, professor of Christian ministries and black church studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and senior pastor of First Gethsemane Baptist Church in Louisville, and Kevin Smith, teaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville and assistant professor of preaching at Southern Seminary.
The conference included 12 breakout sessions on topics ranging from cross-racial ministry and contextual evangelism to leadership development and stewardship.
McNairy said Can We Talk? encompassed “prayer, fellowship, new friendships, equipping, praise and worship and conversation around racial reconciliation, Gospel collaboration and missional disciple-making.
“It was the right thing to do — the God thing to do — at the right time to do it,” McNairy said.