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Southern celebrates racial diversity, creates scholarship for black students

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Although the founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary could not have imagined participating in a racially integrated worship service during their days in the mid-19th century, the modern-day stewards of Southern Baptists’ oldest seminary did just that April 23 in a lively, two-and-a-half-hour “Service of Celebration.”
The worship service honored the first four African American graduates of Southern Seminary with a scholarship named in their honor and looked to a future of closer ministry efforts between the seminary and Louisville, Ky., area black congregations.
“There is a sense in which … our founders in their earthly lifetimes would not have been able to understand the picture before us now,” President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said of the multiracial congregation assembled to worship. “But I believe that now they understand the picture. For gathered with them is a great multitude of saints far more diverse than this.
“Our commitment as the Lord gives us sight is to know how better to order our ways, how better to live our lives, how better genuinely to be a Christian institution in the service of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Mohler added. “And we are gathered here tonight on our part to say to you, please help us to know what it is we ought to do and to know how it we ought to do so.”
Joining Southern Seminary administrators, faculty and students were leading African American ministers and laity from Louisville congregations. The service, originally scheduled to coincide with Black History Month in February, was postponed by a record snowfall.
In addition to Scripture readings, a scholarship fund presentation and a sermon, the service also included spirited musical presentations from two African American congregations, Galilee Baptist Church and St. Stephen Baptist Church, as well as a song performed by the seminary ensemble and Parkland Baptist Church choir.
While expressing gratitude for the theological and doctrinal heritage of Southern Seminary, Mohler acknowledged the seminary’s founders allowed sin to distort their understanding of racial issues.
“There are many who look back to that era and try to look for an explanation, when a short, three-letter word you and I know how to speak is the only answer: sin. And the teeth of the children are set on edge even by the sins of the fathers,” Mohler said, paraphrasing the prophet Ezekiel. “And the sad reality is that our teeth are still somewhat set on edge.”
In a step to honor the legacy of Southern Seminary’s first African American graduates and to improve educational opportunities for such students, Mohler announced the establishment of the Offut-Bottoms-Miller-Taylor Scholarship Fund for African American Students, named in honor of the graduates.
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land presented Mohler with a check for nearly $17,000 from Southern Baptist Convention special funds raised to help rebuild arson-ravaged African American churches in 1995. Southern Seminary, along with the other five SBC seminaries, received the excess monies from the arson fund after all requests for assistance had been filled, Land explained.
Mohler expressed appreciation for “this down payment and investment,” adding the seminary considered the funds “a seed we intend to plant and work hard to water and seek to grow.” Donations to the scholarship fund received in offerings during the service pushed the total to nearly $20,000, seminary officials later reported.
Although tainted by the sin of racial prejudice in its early years, ethics professor C. Ben Mitchell explained administrators and faculty at Southern in the 1940s began to violate a 1904 Kentucky law which prohibited integrated education at public and private institutions. In 1942, Southern professors began educating black students “in faculty offices and in hallways” and through open classroom windows in defiance of the segregation law, Mitchell said. As a result of their efforts, Garland K. Offut was the first African American to be awarded a degree, a doctor of theology, from Southern Seminary in 1942. Ten years later, the first three blacks to be awarded the bachelor of divinity degree graduated, just two years after the segregation law was repealed in 1950.
Noting the snowstorm postponement of the worship service, Mitchell told the audience, “There were many hindrances along the way toward making this evening come to pass. I believe that we are in spiritual warfare. And I believe that there is a satanic desire to keep us apart. Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. And this evening we are able to meet and rejoice together in the glory of Christ and honor these courageous men who have gone before us.”
Honoring the legacy of Southern’s first black graduates also was a theme of A. Russell Awkard in his sermon from Acts 17 which recounts the Apostle Paul’s sermon in Athens. Awkard is pastor of New Zion Baptist Church in Louisville.
“These men whom we honor tonight after 50 years were men who had the kind of thirst for knowledge that equipped them to endure unmentionable indignities during a time of legalized segregation,” Awkard said. “They took the opportunity to be thoroughly prepared for the ministry that was beckoning as the doors of opportunity began to open.”
Noting the legacy of the four ministers, who all enjoyed lengthy service in Louisville congregations, Awkard added, “Only God knows what the impact of their pioneering efforts have done to save the souls of those who were in charge during those years.”
Awkard explained the unbiblical nature of racism by noting the commonality of the human experience.
“We don’t look like one another; we don’t have the same names. But we are all in the same family. And as a matter of fact, we are all in the same boat. … And so, my brothers and my sisters, if the boat goes down, everybody goes down,” he asserted.
Comparing sin to natural catastrophes that sometimes strike in unlikely places, Awkard said that like the calamitous El Nino, the effects of sin cannot be contained.
“There is no sin, there is no sickness, there is no problem that you can confine to the alley. You may think that you can contain AIDS and drugs and violence in the ghetto, in the inner city, but El Nino wants us to know that what starts in the alley, if it’s not brought under control, will infect the suburbs,” Awkard said.
An 18th-century slave in Savannah, Ga., who kept preaching in spite of the punishment of his master, provides an example of the power of the gospel, Awkard said. “We must keep preaching and we must not be hindered by the perception of the results,” he declared, adding, “We must not preach only when we expect unanimous and positive results.”
The firm commitment of the slave to continue preaching, Awkard noted, resulted in the conversion of the master, the establishment of the first black church in Savannah and a state convention in Georgia.
Although only a few were converted under Paul’s preaching in Athens, Awkard declared, “We must preach knowing that his Word will never return unto us void.”

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