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Seminarians learn Baptist history from diverse cultural experiences

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Leaders in ethnic Baptist life from across the western United States helped Baptist history come alive to students during a recent class at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

“We are committed to spreading the fact that Baptist history deals with all cultures,” said Rodrick Durst, associate professor of historical theology, who taught the Baptist history course at the Mill Valley, Calif., campus. “It cannot be limited to any one culture no matter its historical significance.”

Durst, who also serves as the seminary’s academic dean, chose to veer away from straight lecture sessions in the weeklong intensive course by inviting leaders from African American, Native American and Hispanic Baptist churches. “We met Baptist history in living makers and shakers,” Durst said.

The class itself had an interesting cultural mix, encompassing church life to a class that also had a cultural mix — Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, African Americans, Anglos and a German student who is a missionary in Malawi.

Among the speakers was James Coffee, pastor of Community Baptist Church, Santa Rosa, Calif., which in 1951 became the first African American church to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention.

He said histories usually cite First Baptist Church, Anchorage, Alaska, as the first, but the Santa Rosa church joined a few months earlier, plus Alaska wasn’t yet an American state in 1951. “The agreement was that the news couldn’t hit the media at the time,” Coffee told the class. “We didn’t integrate in protest. There were many hard feelings about it, and we got lots of flak from higher-ups in the state and national conventions. We were never dually aligned. It was more by default.”

When a small group of African Americans started attending a white church there, Coffee said the pastor didn’t mind so much, but the church did, so they started a mission.

“Not knowing anything, we organized into our own church, so we’ve always been Southern Baptist,” he said. “But our church is probably the most purely integrated church in the nation now. We don’t like to be called a black church, and I’m not a black preacher. You’re not white or Asian or German. You’re a gospel preacher. I’m a black man, but the gospel doesn’t know any color.”

Emerson Falls, director of Golden Gate’s Rocky Mountain Campus in Denver and a member of the Sac and Fox Native American tribe, told the class that despite all the missions efforts toward Native Americans since the 1600s, 92 percent of them today are not Christians.

“Still, if we took any kind of ethnic baptisms and offerings out, the Southern Baptist Convention might be in decline,” Falls said. “Ethnic fellowships are now a part of Baptist life.”

The low response rate among Native Americans to Christ today probably stems from the cultural trappings that usually accompany mission work targeted to them, Falls said.

“The strategy for missionaries became a matter of living among Native Americans and teaching them how to be civilized by the American definition,” he said. “When building churches, they were very European in making long, narrow rows when Indians sit in a circle. Old pictures show Indians wearing coats and ties with short hair. Paternalism began to grow, and response began to decline.”

Falls said that Roger Williams had a Native American member of his church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1670. “His and his followers’ approach in evangelism was contextualization — not to make Europeans out of Indians,” Falls said. “Native work flourished when missionaries contextualized it. Also from the beginning, Native Americans were impressed with the true gospel when all the cultural baggage was taken out.”

Christobal Dona, pastor of White Road Baptist Church, San Jose, Calif., said ministers must understand certain things about the Hispanic culture to reach them. “About 90 to 95 percent of us come from Roman Catholic backgrounds, and that puts a strain on our tactics, methods and strategies and our way of doing things,” he said.

“The idea of receiving Christ is a problem,” Dona said, “because in communion, they open their mouths and stick their tongues out, and the priest feeds them the wafer. At that moment, in their interpretation, they are receiving Christ. So when I ask them if they want to receive Christ, they say they just did it on Sunday.”

Commitment and credibility also are big issues with Hispanics in the church. “I tell my leaders that there is not a word in the Spanish vocabulary like commitment, but now they’re going to be committing themselves to make the best attempt to work on their lives, characters and tongues,” Dona said. “There’s so much competition that you have to lie to survive, and it’s easy to lie in order to promote ourselves or get points.”

Coffee said he grew up going to an integrated high school and has held many associational and state Baptist offices, often breaking the race barrier. But reconciliation between and among the races is still an unmet goal, he said, noting, “Integration is not reconciliation.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. said that laws don’t make you love anyone, but they’ll keep you from lynching them,” Coffee said. “Reconciliation, though, comes from the heart, and you can never have reconciliation without equality.”

Racism is cross-generational and always taught, Coffee said. “We’re all recovering racists,” he said. “Unlearning racism is like un-ringing a bell. It’s not a 100-yard dash, but a marathon. When dealing with racism and prejudice, you have to have a tough skin.”

Community Baptist Church joining the Southern Baptist Convention was almost like a “best-kept secret,” Coffee said. “We’d become like an illegitimate child that looks more like you than the ones you have. No one likes to be reminded of how things were because they don’t want to remember. Southern Baptist leaders of that time kept their heads in the sand about it.”

Falls said that outreach to Native Americans by Baptists was successful until the strong European belief that “to be Christianized is to be civilized” permeated their ministry. “When Christianity came to the Indians, there was cultural baggage like making them cut their hair and speak English,” he said. “The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee and Creek tribes in the Southeast managed to coexist peacefully with the whites and formed indigenous, contextualized churches that kept their culture in tact, though they adopted some Western ways.”

After society forced Native Americans onto reservations in the 1870s, Southern Baptists began sending missionaries to live among them, Falls continued. But a growing paternalism led to a decline in church growth.

“There are 700 Southern Baptist churches with Native Americans,” Falls said. “But most of them are small because there are still issues that go back to the missionaries. There is division over how contextual the churches need to be. A lot of it still has a European bent to it.”

Even a “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to Native American evangelism isn’t as effective, Falls said. “We see the circle as a symbol of life, and every aspect of life is within that circle. Health is wholeness, and in that circle are the physical, psychological, social and spiritual. If you’re physically not well, it affects all the others.

“Native American beliefs, like many other faiths, believe life revolves around pleasing God or the gods and gaining his or their favor. But in Scripture, God reaches down to us. Jesus Christ brings wholeness. Unfortunately, usually meaning gives way to subsistence in ministry to Native Americans, and we answer questions that they don’t ask.”

Dona said though Hispanics may speak Spanish as a common root language, they are very diverse culturally and linguistically depending on the country they come from.

Some Hispanic churches major too much on nationality, Dona said. “But in my church, it doesn’t make a difference where you’re from,” he said. “I’m an American citizen, but I’m also a Mexican from Nicaragua. But do I belong to El Salvador, which means the Savior? … The leader of the church sets the pace. He can either make tremendous importance of nationality or make none.”

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