CLINTON, Miss. (BP) — Supernatural unity of the heart is the key to racial reconciliation, speakers said at a day-long event sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Mississippi College.
As part of Mississippi College’s annual Evangelism Lectures, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley and Ken Weathersby, vice president for convention advancement with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, spoke on unity for the sake of the Gospel in the morning chapel service.
“We very naturally seek out people like us. Division, separation is natural,” Kelley said during a panel session with Weathersby.
But, Kelley noted, “Community is supernatural — that is built by the Lord.”
Weathersby, a Mississippi College graduate and a Jackson, Miss., native, pointed out that even if a local church is not multi-ethnic, the “church of Jesus Christ is.”
“We are to be making disciples among all ethnic groups,” Weathersby said. “It doesn’t matter what color they may be…. God looks at the heart.”
The Feb. 27 event at Mississippi College’s campus in Clinton included a dinner the previous evening for alumni, donors and students in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of NOBTS’ founding. An afternoon panel discussion and breakout sessions with pastors from multi-ethnic congregations in New Orleans and NOBTS professors followed the morning dialogue.
Kelley challenged the audience not to make the mistake of overlooking the need for racial reconciliation if they personally hold no grudge or anger against others.
“It isn’t about that. It’s about community,” Kelley explained. “The problem the Gospel came to address was the brokenness of the community of man, and to form out of all that brokenness, a community of all of us, not just part of us.”
Kelley said he learned after becoming NOBTS president that the seminary had founded a separate school for African Americans in the 1930s, furthering segregation. The action by NOBTS — named Baptist Bible Institute at the time — caused resentment and lasting “deep divisions,” he said.
“That’s when I understood that even though I wasn’t mad at anybody and I didn’t know anybody was mad at me, we did not have community in the body of Christ in New Orleans,” Kelley said.
Though the decision to establish the separate school for African Americans was not of his doing, Kelley stated, the responsibility to repair the damage was.
“I’m happy to tell you the situation is much different now,” Kelley said. “But it took work to rebuild that relationship.”
Weathersby encouraged the audience listeners to be intentional in reaching out to others whether they are of a different race, ethnicity or from another country.
“We may discover that we have a lot of things in common, that we become friends,” Weathersby said. “And becoming friends would demonstrate to the world that we are in Christ.”
Differences between ethnic groups can resolve when believers stay focused on a common responsibility to evangelize and disciple, Weathersby said.
“When we put our hands to the Gospel plow, the barriers break down,” he said. “We must live in community together as we share Christ together.”
Eric Pratt, vice president of Christian development at Mississippi College and moderator of the morning panel, asked Kelley and Weathersby for tips in sharing the Gospel.
Weathersby said an easy first step is asking servers in restaurants if they have prayer concerns. Many share personal struggles, he said, such as a woman who recently said she was considering an abortion.
“Just by asking that one question … we’re getting directly to the heart,” Weathersby said. “Prayer evangelism is a very strategic way of discovering needs in people’s lives in order to bridge that gap in sharing the ultimate need, and that is the Savior.”
Kelley told of a hotel worker who, after overhearing his phone conversation with his wife Rhonda, shared with him about a loss in her own life. A Gospel conversation followed.
“Introduce Jesus into a conversation and see what God does,” Kelley said. “You’ll often be surprised at the kind of Gospel conversations you can have if you just give Jesus an introduction.”
The afternoon panel discussion and breakout sessions continued the focus on racial reconciliation.
Ryan Rice, pastor of Connect Church in New Orleans, pointed to the challenge he faces as an African American pastor leading a racially diverse congregation. Learning to yield to others’ preferences and viewpoints is a matter of discipleship, he said.
“Your preferences don’t matter to Jesus, so that means, your pastor’s level of melanin [skin pigment] shouldn’t matter either,” Rice said. “We die to our own preferences for the glory of the Gospel.”
Josh Holland, a white pastor who shares pastoral leadership with two African American pastors, said, “If we truly believe at the cross there’s [level] ground, then … we have to sit at the table together. Everybody’s going to have to eat some humble pie and be able to give grace to each other.”
Daylon Taylor, an African American medical doctor and NOBTS graduate who serves as pastor with Holland at Level Ground Community Church in New Orleans, emphasized that reconciliation is every believer’s responsibility, not just Anglo believers.
“I’m pointing to our black brothers and sisters also in saying that God wants your church to be multi-ethnic,” Taylor said. “When we come to that understanding, that’s when racial reconciliation can take place.”
Kevin Brown, NOBTS associate professor of social work, summed up the current situation as he sees it by concluding, “I see people beginning to awaken in our churches, but we’ve got a long way to go because we’ve been asleep for a long, long time.”