NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In 1951, when two churches with African American members joined the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC entered a new era of inclusiveness, leaders say. Since then, national, state, and local bodies of churches have reaped significant benefits in health and growth.
"Our African American colleagues enormously enrich the fellowship of Southern Baptist churches by the unique and wonderful gifts they bring to our work," said Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1992. "We have been made a better convention by their involvement."
Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "More and more our congregations are looking like our communities, which include not only African American, but Hispanic, Asian and a multiplicity of ethnic groups.
"We not only look more like our population, but more like heaven as colors and cultures represent the Kingdom of God on earth," said Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano.
While SBC leaders celebrate the victories that have been achieved, some add that ongoing work is needed to bring the convention to a true one-body-in-Christ reconciliation that goes deeper than respect and tolerance.
Some leaders of African descent, point out that more attention needs to be made to hiring practices that ensure African Americans can be found on all rungs of leadership, using this expertise throughout the SBC and not just in culturally specific roles.
A bellwether of the SBC's commitment to inclusion is the growing number of African Americans in denominational leadership positions. The African American Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network organized in 1997 with 21 charter members. Now their number is stretching toward 200 and beyond, including 41 serving as international missionaries.
Most serve the denomination in culturally specific assignments but others like Gary Frost serve across all cultural lines. Frost is vice president for strategic partnerships at the SBC's North American Mission Board.
A 1989 decision to intentionally start Southern Baptist churches in predominantly African American communities resulted in a mushrooming of SBC-affiliated African American congregations, the number growing to about 4,000 in less than 15 years, according to estimates from the SBC's North American Mission Board. Previously, the primary church starting strategy had been to depend on cooperative ministries with National Baptists.
Today some of the strongest Southern Baptist churches are found within an African American culture. The largest African American congregation in the SBC is said to be Brentwood Baptist in Houston, where about 7,500 people worship on Sunday mornings. Joe Samuel Ratliff, D.Min., D.D., has been the pastor there for the last 22 years. The church has 15,000 members, 110 acres and even an on-site McDonald's (perhaps the nation's only church-owned McDonald's).
Several other African American congregations have attendance of more than 3,000 on any given Sunday. Another dozen or more draw more than 2,000 worshipers.
Listing the benefits African American churches bring to the SBC, African Americans who spoke with Baptist Press consistently talked about strong roles with long tenures for their pastors and the engaging nature of their worship services. Anglos noted the great preaching, urban wisdom and cultural insights that these congregations add.
"We don't have to be the same to be equal. That's one of the things I have to work on here," said James Coffee, pastor for 43 years of Community Baptist Church of Santa Rosa, Calif. Community Baptist was one of the two churches with African American members to join the SBC in 1951. Greater Friendship Baptist Church of Anchorage, Alaska, was the other.
Coffee and other pastors in Santa Rosa started a citywide Diversity Forum six years ago.
"Integration was legalized in the 1960s but what we never had was reconciliation," Coffee said. "In order to have reconciliation you have to have acceptance. You've got to see people as equal, and we don't have to be the same to be equal."
Today racism shows itself more subtly and more often at the personal level, said Leroy Gainey, Ph.D., professor of intercultural studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco and pastor of the multicultural First Baptist Church of Vacaville, Calif., near Oakland the past 13 years.
"Definitely yes we have people [in Southern Baptist churches] who are prejudiced," Gainey said. "That's why many churches will never be multicultural."
It's prejudice - prejudging - to resist change, to say "the way I do it is the best way," in order to preserve culture, Gainey said.
"When what is most important is reaching people for Jesus Christ, you will have to reduce your self-importance in your particular racial group," Gainey explained. "If you're willing to share the gospel with everyone, and they're drawn to what you're doing, then you're going to have to be multiculturally sensitive."
One obvious benefit of true reconciliation is the legacy passed on to succeeding generations, Gainey said.
"You're investing in young people by the behavior they see [in] you ... today," Gainey said. "They have a greater opportunity, possibility, probability of being the people of God in a multicultural way because they see it lived out in you [and that] it's not just talked about."
"The Southern Baptist Convention is making excellent progress," said John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention who has been a leader in the area of racial reconciliation. "We are not all we need to be, but we are not what we were."
By Kelly Boggs