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SBC at all levels seems headed toward genuine reconciliation

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Leaders across the SBC are positive about the direction of race relations in the convention, but look forward to more being done to bring the convention into genuine reconciliation.

“I think it’s a slow process,” said Gary Frost, vice president for strategic partnerships at the SBC’s North American Mission Board. “Anglos historically have difficulty recognizing when they are behaving in a racist manner, because what may seem to be the norm for them is quite obvious to the African American an expression of bigotry.”

On the other hand, people of African descent seem to be too quick to take offense where none was intended, some Anglos say. Others, meanwhile, say that Anglos who think that way don’t comprehend the heightened awareness of a people group that suffered 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of oppression.

“Real reconciliation begins with me; I’ve got to deal with me,” said Leroy Gainey, pastor of the multicultural First Baptist Church of Vacaville, Calif., and professor of intercultural studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. “I’ve got to ask God for forgiveness and be open to his changing my heart in ways that I might not prefer. I believe that’s where reconciliation starts.

“A good second step is to learn about other folk and, before you go personally, do some reading; pick up some periodicals,” Gainey added.

A number of churches and their Baptist associations and state conventions are doing just that — learning about each other — even as a rapidly growing number of African Americans are being tapped to serve in the SBC at all levels.

John Lipton, pastor of Capital Baptist Church in Salem, Ore., led his congregation last November to attend an African American congregation’s anniversary celebration. He picked up some preaching pointers during that three-hour worship service, Lipton told his congregation the next Sunday.

“Amen?” he asked.

“Amen!” the congregation enthusiastically replied, having picked up some pointers as well.

“I admire the spirit of worship that was present among the worshipers that evening,” Lipton said in a later e-mail. “There was real joy and fervent singing, all of which were a prelude to the power-packed preaching of the preacher. Indeed there was an expectation that, as the preacher preached, the congregation would engage heart and voice in response. Returning to my routine of ministry, message preparation and preaching, I have a renewed realization that my heart must be on fire if any of the congregation are to be warmed for worship and service.”

John Avant at New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., recognized the affluent community New Hope served was probably 40 percent African American, NAMB’s Frost said. “He brought an African American on staff and immediately more of the black community began to become part of the congregation,” Frost said.

“I went to Charles Stanley’s church recently and was shocked to see its 30 percent black,” Frost added. Conventional wisdom might suggest a First Baptist Church in the Deep South’s largest city would be a white enclave. “This inclusion is going both ways. I’m seeing a lot of white churches becoming more inclusive, but then there’s black churches attracting more Anglo membership.”

Sid Smith, in 1968 one of the trailblazing people of African descent in the SBC, today is director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division.

“Many of our churches across the SBC have inclusive membership, nearly 25 percent,” Smith said. “The largest church in Florida is First Baptist, Jacksonville. It has 25,000 members and reportedly more than 4,000 of them are African American.”

The Jacksonville congregation has an interesting history, Smith said. It organized with six members in 1839 — two of whom were of African descent — as Bethel Baptist Church. Many white members moved out over a relocation squabble in 1866; they set up two blocks away as First Baptist Church. Both churches remained integrated. In 1999, the two churches celebrated their common 160th anniversary.

“They made a video of that service that is well worth seeing,” Smith said. “I was there. It was a joyous occasion.”

B. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, said he has noticed a significantly increased number of people of African descent attending the annual meetings of the SBC.

“For that, I am personally grateful,” Driggers said. “However, I am not positive that we are seeing a great deal of involvement in state conventions and local associational and church gatherings.

“I don’t know exactly the reasons for that, but my hunch is that Baptists of whatever racial makeup are more content to remain with their own racial groups than break out and do something new and creative,” he said. “In other words, I don’t know whether racial prejudice is the root of the problem as much as just being comfortable with the familiar.”

In the mid-1990s, the South Carolina Baptist Convention partnered with the Baptist Educational Missionary Baptist Convention to do mission work in Kenya.

“It was a marvelous experience of black and white going to Kenya together,” Driggers said. “So far as we know, that is the only time in history when a black Baptist convention and a white Baptist convention got together to do mission work overseas.”

The state convention’s openness has helped churches grow. “I can tell you that in South Carolina, we are seeing more African American members of our South Carolina Baptist Convention churches than we ever have,” Driggers said. “I believe that the greatest hope for racial reconciliation is for significant leaders to break out into the open and do some good work that would be unusual and creative and most challenging.”

The state convention recently called Roosevelt Morris, a man of African descent, to head up a new office for prayer and spiritual awakening throughout the state convention.

“The benefits of reconciling of course are obvious,” Driggers said. “The Kingdom of God calls for the people of God to work together for reconciliation at all times. If the Kingdom of God is to come on this earth even as it is in heaven, racial reconciliation is a challenge we must always be working toward.”

Driggers and John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, are two Anglo denominational leaders who seem — to people of African descent — to be particularly interested in achieving genuine reconciliation.

“I came to the conviction that we must change our basic planning and budgeting process to include African American and language leadership at the planning table,” Sullivan said. “As a result, the Florida Baptist Convention created a language division and an African American division of work.

“The Florida Baptist Convention makes a deliberate effort to include African Americans on all major committees of the convention,” Sullivan continued. “They are given visibility at the annual state convention meeting through leading prayer, music, preaching and Bible study — in fact, every aspect. And in addition to being represented in division leadership, African Americans have served as president and vice president of the Florida Baptist Convention.”

Even so, there are some deep-seated barriers to reconciliation, Florida’s executive director said.

“There’s racial baggage from past history,” Sullivan said. “This is not just a white problem; it is also a people-of-color problem. We must stop making every failure of cooperation a problem of race. It may be other factors, such as timing, personality or program weakness.

“Reconciliation comes through grace and faith that leads to trust and confidence,” Sullivan added. “Racism is not a skin problem. It is a sin problem.”

One of the more innovative ideas was to bring all board-elected members of the Florida Baptist Convention staff together once a year for mandatory sensitivity training, so that people of all backgrounds would understand each other more.

“For my own personal experience,” said Raul Vazquez, director of the convention’s language ministries division, “it brought issues about my ignorance of significant elements of other cultures.

“It brought out that I need to do more research and have more awareness of other cultures. I felt that others in the group were in the same situation, where it actually brought to light some of the things we needed to learn to build bridges across cultures,” Vazquez said.

Across the Southern Baptist Convention, the number of African Americans serving the denomination as workers and leaders has increased significantly in the last several years.

Three men have been called to serve denominational roles as a vice president: Gary Frost in strategic partnerships at NAMB; Lawrence Smith in communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Jerry Burkett in information systems at the International Mission Board.

Several Southern Baptist seminaries have fulltime African American faculty members. Southern Seminary’s black church leadership program includes a Ph.D. degree.

“Something like [a Ph.D. in black church leadership] is very significant,” Smith said, “because it shows appreciation — cross-cultural appreciation — on the part of our convention to the black church community. This is something relatively recent in the life of our SBC.”

The selection of people of African descent to teach at the seminaries and to serve in denominational vice presidential roles “makes a strong statement about the SBC’s commitment to inclusion,” Smith said.

The spontaneous outpouring of more than $700,000 from people in Southern Baptist churches for African American churches that had been burned by arsonists in the mid-1990s reflects support from the SBC’s “people in the pew,” Smith said. The offering went a long way toward healing generational wounds, he added.

That heartfelt response of Southern Baptists even surpassed the formal apology the denomination made in 1995 for past racist behavior, Smith said. Another strong statement was made when Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Leroy Gainey of Golden Gate Seminary were tapped as chairman and vice-chair for the subsequently formed racial reconciliation task force, Smith said.

Two African Americans were elected president of their state conventions in 2002 – Leon May of Alaska and Robert Coverson of Michigan. This brings to 20 the number of blacks who have served as a state convention president. And two state conventions held their 2002 annual meetings in African American churches, a first for both Penn/South Jersey and Michigan state conventions.

“I think the fact that inclusiveness is the direction we’re moving in our local congregations really tells where the SBC is,” Smith said.

“Acceptance on the local level is saying to us that we are learning to love each other more, to love and accept each other more, and that’s genuine because nobody makes us do it,” Smith said. “We don’t have to do it. We could still live well without doing it, but there is a dynamic of the gospel at work in Southern Baptists that helps us to say the more we get together, the more Christian we will be.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction and that to me is the valuable thing that we need to capture, recognize and share with people — rather than the problems of racism,” Smith continued. “We know they still exist in some places and some people, but to me the encouraging part of the story is that we are making progress, and that’s the good news.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: CROSS-CULTURAL MISSIONS.