February is Black History Month in the United States. Southern Baptists have also attempted to focus on racial reconciliation in the month of February.
I have tried on many occasions to imagine what it must have been like to grow up as an African American slave in the South.
I have read a number of books on the trials and tribulations of the black men and women who were slaves in the South, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, My Bondage and My Freedom by Fredrick Douglas, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington, and When I Can Read My Title Clear by Janet Dustman Cornelius.
I read books and saw films like Alex Haley’s Roots and Amazing Grace, which portrays William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade in the British Empire.
I have read the Bible and prayed for understanding so that I might know the pain and suffering and oppression and rejection black people have felt because of their treatment in the past. For many years, it was difficult for me to comprehend and empathize with them.
You see, I was in a segregated school system from the first grade to high school. Even when I went to Mercer University in 1959 there were no black students. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in its Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that educational facilities in the United States should be integrated with all deliberate speed. After the ruling the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission adopted a resolution praising the ruling and urging “Christian statesman and leaders in our churches to use their leadership … [so] this crisis in our national history shall not be made the occasion for new bitter prejudices.”
Many universities resisted integration with protests, riots, and violence, but Mercer University bucked that trend and in 1963 became the first previously all-white institution in Georgia to voluntarily integrate. Sam Jerry Oni, an African missionary convert from Ghana, came to Mercer and became the roommate of one of my best friends, Don Baxter. I thought it was a step in the right direction, a good thing.
In 1981 I was pastor of Colonial Heights Baptist Church in Jackson, MS – a church that had never had a black member. On that Easter Sunday morning we had a precious African American girl –a high school senior – who came to the altar and made a profession of faith. As we always did, I presented her as a candidate for baptism and church membership.
I knew some members would be resistant to receiving her into our fellowship, so I said, “a vote for Sarah is a vote for me to remain as your pastor and a vote against her is a vote against me remaining as your pastor.” While some did not vote, no one dared to vote against receiving her as a member under those circumstances – not because I was such a charismatic leader, but because they knew deep in their hearts that there was only one right way to vote.
Through the years Southern Baptists have passed multiple resolutions of racial reconciliation. In 1995 Southern Baptists, meeting for their annual session held that year in Atlanta, passed a resolution asking “for forgiveness from our African American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake; and we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry.”
After all these years there still seems to be a racial divide in America. Racism implies prejudice as well as power and privilege, which do not disappear without a deep and prolonged struggle. Some church leaders have called racism the major sin of the 21st century, which imprisons and diminishes both the oppressed and the oppressors and hinders full human growth and development for all involved. But, as Christians we have a higher calling. We must remember that the love of Jesus conquers all hate, strife, and bitterness.
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board is becoming more diverse. We have more African American churches and African Americans uniting with our churches. I love the dimension of faith and worship they bring into our churches.
If we can ever come anywhere close to understanding the history and trials of our black brothers and sisters we will take a giant step toward loving them, appreciating them, and giving them a seat at the table of leadership.