Visages of African-American heroes —Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—are taped to the front of the Victory Temple Baptist Church sanctuary where about 30 are gathered on a misty Wednesday night for worship. Stacked on a shelf in the church's foyer are Lottie Moon Christmas-offering envelopes.
The curious observer might wonder what link Moon, a white, nineteenth-century missionary heroine of the Southern Baptist Convention, has to a black Baptist church.
The answer lies in Victory Temple's unique background: In many ways the church is purely Southern black; in others, it is purely Southern Baptist.
Victory Temple is one of about 20 black Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi. Given Baptist history, combining black and Southern Baptist would typically be an oxymoron. Churches like Victory Temple, near the Mississippi River in the Delta town of Greenville, are reversing that.
A PAST STILL PRESENT
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has shown as much desire as any American evangelical institution to rid itself of its racist past.
The SBC was organized 150 years ago this month, when Baptists in the South split from the national Triennial Convention and its extension, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, in a dispute over whether slave owners should become missionaries. Northern abolitionists objected to the idea, while Southern Baptists argued that it was their right.
Although many blacks were initially members of SBC congregations—the churches of their slave masters—following the Emancipation Proclamation and the finish of the Civil War, blacks left the denomination in droves. By 1890, out of more than one million SBC members, there were no African Americans. Black Baptists soon formed their own denominations. Today, the three largest-the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention-together total more than 59,000 churches and 14 million members.
Not surprisingly, the corporate and individual racism that helped spawn the SBC is not easily forgotten by blacks. However, many blacks within the SBC agree that it is now time to move on.
"It's definitely a bad rap," says black Southern Baptist pastor Joe Ratliff of the SBC's reputation for racism. Ratliff's Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, averages 6,500 for Sunday worship and has 10,000 on the rolls. He also leads the SBC's independently organized African-American Fellowship. "The Southern Baptist Convention's history speaks of racism, but in terms of the present commitment and trends, it's totally unfair to still call it racist."
If current growth statistics are any indication, then the SBC perhaps does merit a new hearing by African Americans. In fact, the number of black Southern Baptist churches in the U.S. (1,817) exceeds that of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (1,400), the third-largest national black Baptist denomination.
It used to be that the SBC's emphasis on planting all-black churches instead of integrated bodies would have implied a racist, "separate but equal" mentality. Today, with Afro-centrism finding increasing acceptability in many black communities, some Southern Baptists are seeing the homogeneous-unit principle as the only effective means of growing SBC churches among African Americans—and other ethnic groups.
Since 1989, when the SBC intentionally started planting black churches, it has established approximately 150 a year, and the denomination's growth in the future is projected largely in the ethnic and African-American areas [see "Not Just Black and White," in this issue]. What's more, according to Sid Smith, director of African-American Ministries for the Florida Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists employ more full-time black professionals in denominational service than any other denomination.
What is the reason behind the SBC's racial expansion? There seem to be several: (1) Its racist history has forced the SBC to deal more forthrightly with race relations than any other white denomination (Southern Baptists were the first denomination to support the 1954 Supreme Court decision against public-school segregation and have observed a Race Relations Sunday in February since 1965); (2) The SBC's loose, locally controlled church structure accommodates various worship forms and beliefs; and (3) The SBC's commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission is probably even weightier than the matter of race.
The process of pursuing racial inclusiveness and equality in the nation's largest Protestant denomination (38,401 churches; 15.3 million members) has arisen from a combination of answered prayers and hard work.
Two names, among others, clearly surface in the battle for racial equality within the SBC: Foy Valentine, a white theological moderate and political liberal who led the SBC Christian Life Commission (CLC) from 1960 to 1987; and Harold Branch, a black "bridge builder" who helped challenge racist Southern Baptists in Texas and beyond.
Valentine was raised by a Texas dirt farmer with a fifth-grade education who taught him that "everybody is somebody," Valentine said in a 1989 speech. His exposure to the likes of Clarence Jordan (founder of Georgia's mixed-race Koinonia Farm) and others at Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in the 1940s made it clear to him that his chief calling was to tackle race relations in his denomination. After serving as Texas CLC director and having run-ins with the likes of the White Citizens Council, in 1960 Valentine became director of the SBC's national CLC. "The race relations pot was boiling furiously by that time," he recalls.
Valentine remembers the spring of 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson addressed a CLC group in the White House Rose Garden to ask their support for the Civil Rights Act. "No group of Christians has greater responsibility in civil rights than Southern Baptists," the President told the gathering. "Your people are part of the power structure in many communities. Their attitudes are confirmed or changed by the sermons you preach and by the lessons you write and by the examples you set."
One man who lived and preached racial equality and reconciliation was black Southern Baptist Harold Branch, who pastored Saint John Baptist Church in Woburn, Massachusetts, before returning to his native Austin, Texas, in 1947 to lead East Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Having been assimilated into northern life, says Branch, he returned home "a round object coming back trying to fit into a square place." He soon found a friend in Carlyle Marney, the white pastor of Austin's First Baptist Church. Encouraged by his relationship with Marney, Branch decided to apply for membership in the SBC's Austin Baptist Association; it was 1954, just three years after the first black church joined the SBC in Santa Rosa, California.
Initially, there was opposition to Branch's East Nineteenth Baptist becoming an SBC church, allegedly because the church was already affiliated with the local council of churches in Austin. But Carlyle Marney knew differently; he and another white pastor took the floor for Branch, and the opposition soon died. Branch's church was accepted into the SBC.
While Valentine's and Branch's stories are encouraging, for years they were certainly not the norm. From Reconstruction (1865-77) to the mid twentieth century, the SBC had nothing to do with African Americans. It was not until the emergence of people like Foy Valentine and Harold Branch, along with the larger civil-rights movement, that the SBC showed signs of openness to blacks, and vice versa.
Evangelist and Southern Baptist Billy Graham helped achieve a change in attitude. A personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Graham called "Mike" at the civil-rights leader's request, Graham was the one who penned the famous phrase, later attributed to King, that 11 o'clock Sunday morning was "the most segregated hour in America." Graham wrote an article by that title in the 1950s for Reader's Digest.
In 1971, a further strong shift in sentiment came when another prominent Southern Baptist, Graham's pastor, W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Church, Dallas, told a press conference that he had changed his mind about integration. He had written in a 1970 book, Look Up, Brother: "It had been my stated persuasion that we ought to go our separate ways … but as I prayed, searched the holy scriptures, preached the gospel, and worked with our people, I came to the profound conclusion that to separate by coercion the Body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation was unthinkable, unchristian and unacceptable to God."
Today it would be hard to claim universally that the SBC is separated on the basis of skin pigmentation, although there are still many SBC churches—especially in the South—that do not have black members and would likely contend black membership. This itself causes many to wonder how much the convention can really boast of its progress.
A recent incident at a Southern Baptist church in a southern city illustrates the continuing problem. The altar call was given, but when a black man, who had been visiting on a regular basis, walked forward to make a "public profession of faith," the pastor promptly closed the invitation. The man was not afforded the typical opportunity to join the church. Later, church leadership agreed neither to reject black membership nor to encourage it.
Still, many SBC churches, while not necessarily eager to recruit black members for their local congregations, have shown genuine earnestness in efforts to encourage indigenous Southern Baptist leaders in African-American communities.
For years, Victory Temple Baptist pastor Eddie Jones's salary and support came largely from one source: First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, the state's largest church. They sent him to New Orleans Baptist Seminary to get a two-year associate of divinity degree in pastoral ministry. They supported all three of his SBC church plants in Mississippi and still offer him some support today in Greenville.
Many white and black Southern Baptists will say that the denomination has come a long way. African-American Gary Frost, pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, was recently elected second vice president of the national convention. Two states, New Mexico and California, recently elected African Americans as directors of home missions. And scores of blacks hold elected or employed posts on national, state, and association levels.
"Racism—overt racism and segregation and support for those—are in great disfavor," says Richard Land, director of the SBC's Christian Life Commission. "I know of very few people who would claim to be Southern Baptists who would overtly make racist or segregationist comments. There is no impediment to African-American participation at state convention or association levels. In fact, it is actively encouraged. That is different, however, from having significantly integrated congregations. It has not filtered down to the local-congregation level."
One of the reasons for this, suggests Land, is the reality of two different worship traditions among blacks and whites that have evolved over the years. Two SBC congregations exemplify this tension.
Colonial Baptist Church in Baltimore is known for its mixed-race membership of 1,200, about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, with a growing ethnic mix. Transplanted southerners formed the congregation during the 1940s, according to Light magazine, the publication of the CLC. While originally the main issue for the church was race, another issue soon took precedence: worship style. "If you are not willing to be tolerant in your worship styles, you will never be a racially diverse congregation," says pastor Russ Priddy. For years, two Sundays a month Colonial featured a mostly white sanctuary choir, and the other two Sundays the music was led by a black gospel choir. Today the choirs have merged and do a diverse mixture of songs.
The same issue has proven to be a challenge in the Peninsula Baptist Association (PBA) of Virginia. There, Al Gilbert's attempts to integrate white, 3,000-member Liberty Baptist Church all but failed, due in part to the existence of another SBC congregation, the 42-member, all-black Mercy Seat Baptist Church, close by. "The black community is not necessarily attracted to our style of worship," Gilbert told the Newport News Daily Press. So the PBA recently adopted a policy tolerating racial separation, concluding that some forms of church separation can still be equal. The PBA now concentrates more on supporting and recruiting black churches instead of trying to draw blacks into white churches.
"ARE THEY RECONCILED?"
Just what constitutes racial equality and reconciliation forms one of the major sources of controversy now in the SBC. And increasingly, as blacks advance into positions of Southern Baptist leadership, and as SBC growth centers on black and ethnic churches in urban areas rather than largely white rural regions, the debate heightens.
Reconciliation pioneer and outside observer John Perkins notes that, regardless of how many black churches the SBC plants, the ultimate question in his mind is: Are they reconciled?
"To get a lot of blacks into the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't say a lot about the Southern Baptists," asserts Perkins. "It might say something about their efficiency and their ability to organize creatively. But it speaks heartily against reconciliation in the sense that they didn't bring those people into the [white] congregations with them."
On this point, Perkins might hear amens from members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which formed in 1991 to counter the growing conservative control within the SBC. David Wilkinson, CBF communications coordinator, thinks that racial "progress in the SBC has been painstakingly slow." He says his group desires a Baptist picture of "inclusiveness" resembling "a fellowship of followers of Christ who are equal partners in responding obediently to Christ's calling and his command."
Yet Wilkinson believes actually bringing white and black Southern Baptists into the same congregation "is a very complex issue. You are going to get diverse perspectives on that from the African-American community as well as the Anglo community."
Dwight McKissic, black SBC pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, says there is a need for gatherings like the reconciliation conference recently hosted by white First Baptist of Arlington, in which 700 blacks and whites-mostly Southern Baptist-came together on equal terms. "We need to shift from paternalism and patronism to partnership where we sit down at the table and recognize we all have something to give," McKissic says.
Often unable to reach consensus on the matter of what reconciliation should look like, much of the debate about race in the SBC is now masked in terms of conservatives and moderates. In a sense, the fact that blacks are now found in both camps reveals the extent of progress they have made in the denomination. It also reveals an underlying tension present in the broader American culture.
Leaders like Wilkinson and black SBC pastor Don Sharp of Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago believe that conservatives in the SBC have dropped the ball in championing black progress. Although Sharp himself has served as president of the SBC's Metro Chicago Baptist Association, he nonetheless thinks not nearly enough blacks are in top SBC positions. "Racism in the SBC is very hard to put a finger on," he says. "It is very much institutionalized and very much alive and well. It's really a neo-racist attitude that blacks are all right, and there is a place for them if they speak the white language." Sharp adds that racial progress in the convention has slacked since the takeover by conservatives.
Yet other black Southern Baptists, like Oklahoma Republican Congressman J. C. Watts, a former SBC youth pastor, think that while more blacks deserve to be in denominational and national power positions, they can now be called to such positions because of their qualifications and not because of affirmative-action-type programs.
"I don't want to be a black leader … . I want to be a leader, period," Watts told Light magazine.
Adding to the racial debates within the SBC is the growing controversy over a new "Declaration of Repentance," drafted by the directors of SBC associations from the 12 major American cities where more than 42 percent of the total U.S. black population lives. The declaration has been approved by at least five state conventions and is heading to a vote at the June national convention.
But controversy exists over whether white Southern Baptists need officially apologize for past injustices again, given current progress and since other race resolutions have passed. In fact, the most recent ratified declaration, from June 1993, calls on Southern Baptists "to redouble their efforts … to reach across racial and ethnic boundaries to establish both wholesome friendships and mutually beneficial ministry relationships"; endorses civil rights laws when "such laws are in accordance with the Word of God"; and states "Southern Baptists are on record as abhorring racial and ethnic injustice." It does not, however, apologize for past sins of racism, something that was done in a 1989 SBC resolution that said, in part, "We repent of any past bigotry and pray for those who are still caught in its clutches."
Nevertheless, in the view of many SBC blacks and whites, far too many Southern Baptists still seem caught in those clutches of racism and racist perceptions.
LEARNING TO TRUST
Distrust over the SBC's motives in expanding its African-American churches is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the ongoing strained relationship between pastors of the nation's largest black denomination, the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. (NBC)-33,000 churches and 8.2 million members-and their Southern Baptist counterparts.
When Eddie Jones moved to Greenville in 1987 to plant his Southern Baptist church at the invitation of the white pastor of the local First Baptist Church, it raised a stir in the black community. Several black National Baptist pastors accused him of coming to steal their sheep.
"When he first got here," says 46-year-old Rosie Davis, a member of Jones's church and long-time local school teacher, "a lot of blacks were against him. They said the whites brought him to keep the blacks out of their churches."
"A lot of blacks today still don't appreciate what I'm doing," says Jones. "A lot of us don't really understand what forgiveness is all about."
In Arkansas, Chinese-American SBC pastor Jack Kwok has partnered with National Baptists in hopes of addressing such concerns. There, Kwok works with NBC pastors, sharing joint worship services and other gatherings, to facilitate respect and build relationships.
One key factor in the SBC's ability to attract black churches into its fold has been the financial and educational resources available to SBC churches. In many cases, suggests Faith Tabernacle's Don Sharp, black churches are not joining the SBC out of any vision for racial reconciliation, but rather out of need. The SBC pours at least $18,000 into each local black church start, not to mention the wealth of denominational benefits and educational materials it makes available to its members. "I can in no way speak for all of them," says Sharp, "but some black churches that affiliate with the SBC come into the convention because of the resources that it offers, especially to smaller churches."
Moreover, the SBC allows "dual alignment," meaning that any church can align with the SBC and another denomination, as long as it sends a certain amount of financial support to the proper SBC channels.
Ratliff of Houston's Brentwood Baptist Church says that at least 600 of the 1,817 black SBC churches are dually aligned with the National Baptists. The argument for holding a dual membership, he says, is that most of the black SBC pastors find their need for fellowship met via the NBC, even though there is some latent tension.
While Ratliff himself attends the yearly NBC national conference, he remains singly aligned with the SBC to send a message to "the broader Southern Baptist church that there are black churches in the SBC that are giving and aren't here just for the resources."
TRAMPLING RACIAL BARRIERS
In 1983, when Eddie Jones planted Mississippi's first black SBC church in Moss Point, he had no idea how radical an endeavor it was.
"If I'd of known what I was doing, I wouldn't have done it. I didn't know the difference between Southern Baptist and National Baptist; I just thought Baptist was Baptist." Today, Jones and countless other African-Americans within the SBC know the difference and are working to trample the racial barriers that continue to hamper their denomination.
Jones is, by his own description, someone who likes a challenge. He loves his current church in Greenville, but if he were to get a call from a white SBC church in Mississippi, Jones says he would strongly consider it. He believes it could happen.
Many SBC African Americans told CT that blacks leading whites remains a largely untested area that would signal marked improvement in race relations.
Most of the white pastors within the SBC have the message of racial reconciliation, says Jones, but the trick remains "getting it down to their congregation in a way in which they won't lose their job."
In the meantime, the SBC, with its commitment to evangelism and planting urban churches, is likely to continue its black growth. As it does, perhaps the nation will begin to witness real, verifiable racial progress and unity emanating from an institution that was once, for many, defined by its legacy of racism.
Joe Maxwell is a writer living in Jackson, Mississippi.
Copyright © 1995 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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