Array of blacks, whites kindled SBC toward racial reconciliation

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Friday, February 14, 2003 (17 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--As civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. declared, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Countless men and women have helped place the Southern Baptist Convention on the road toward driving out racism, their efforts marked by a patient, longsuffering 1 Corinthians kind of love.

A pioneering role model for African American Southern Baptists was Emmanuel L. McCall Sr., the only black leader in a national role for nearly a decade.

"I was the first African American to head a national program for the Southern Baptist Convention," McCall said. A 1962 Southern Baptist Seminary graduate, he was a pastor and a teacher in Kentucky from 1960 until the SBC's Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) called him in 1968. (McCall is not related to E.W. McCall Sr., pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in La Puente, Calif., and current second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.)

"The HMB made the determination there needed to be a person of African American descent to relate to the three conventions of black Baptists and to help the SBC deal with its own racism," Emmanuel McCall said. "They wanted to be able to change from within."

McCall, who retired from the HMB in 1991, is writing his fifth book, which will focus on the SBC from 1965 to 1995.

"This is when the SBC really took seriously the need to address its racism," McCall said. "The convention itself did not make that a public statement but there were those [in the entities] who said, 'We've got problems.' Part of my job was to deal with those problems."

McCall said his book will recount the SBC entities' histories in race relations along with the lives of those seeking to make a difference. "These were people who had no name recognition but were effective in helping change the convention," he said, encompassing a range of Baptist leaders, professors in seminaries, leaders in Woman's Missionary Union and laypeople -- "a general populace about those whose stories need to be told. It's a long list of white folks."

Walker Knight was one of the first, McCall said. "His writing in Home Mission magazine set this issue in light for all to see. Foy Valentine, in Texas and then as head of the Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission). Cecil Ethridge in personnel at the HMB -- and 70 to 80 others."

The name of the HMB department where he worked changed four times as Southern Baptists grew in their awareness and acceptance of people of African descent, McCall said. What started as the Department of Negro Work was renamed the Department of Work with National Baptists, was changed to the Department of Cooperative Ministries with National Baptists, and in 1989, became the Black Church Extension Division.

"That's when, instead of focusing on working with National Baptists, Southern Baptists made an intentionality to do whatever they wanted to do without the blessing of National Baptists," McCall said. "For example, planting churches in black communities. By the 1980s, Southern Baptists had already been accepting African American churches into the convention for 30 years. Why start churches for another denomination?"

In the mid-1980s, McCall organized a luncheon during SBC annual meetings for African American pastors as a way of encouraging attendance. Sid Smith, then-manager of the Black Church Development Section at the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), also convened meetings each year of black pastors.

Joe Samuel Ratliff, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, brought the two groups together in 1992 and for his efforts was named founding president of the African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Sid was a little more aggressive than Emmanuel," Ratliff said. "Emmanuel was a little more the corporate type. Sid was a lot more interested in organizing and formalizing. My role was to formulate a union of sorts.

"I had the savvy and Sid had the clout," Ratliff said. "With the fellowship of pastors we had the ability to raise the issues that couldn't otherwise be raised -- sort of a black caucus."

What issues?

"There was no representation, no African American presence on the boards [of SBC entities]," Ratliff said. "They were not nominated; they were not elected. And the literature of the Sunday School Board prior to a decade ago -- all the faces in there were Anglo. The SBC was saying there was inclusion, but there was no visible inclusion. We were present but it was almost an invisible man kind of thing."

From its inception the African American Fellowship was successful, Ratliff said. "It at least raised the right questions," he said. "I always argued the power is in the question. If you don't ask the right questions, you don't get the right answers. The purpose of the fellowship was to press the SBC to some intentionality. That's what they [the denomination] didn't have."

Fellowship was another of the organization's goals.

"We met our goal of 2,000 churches years ago," Ratliff said. "The bigger issue was the inclusion -- not just to satisfy the numerical goal, but the quality issue, to make sure there was pluralism. I don't think we're there yet. I think there is diversity, but not necessarily inclusion."

Ratliff, whose Texas-size church gives a half-million dollars to missions each year, sees denominational politics as blurring people's focus.

"If we can get past all that political wrangling and just deal with the issues of mission and the things that make us who we are, we'll see God getting the glory and his Kingdom enhanced," Ratliff said. "I still am proud to be in the convention. I just keep hope alive and keep going for it."

Five years after the formation of the African American Fellowship, Sid Smith and others organized the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network to provide mentors, share information and develop a problem-solving forum for issues affecting the SBC and its African American members.

The servants network also shows the formalizing of strategies in the black community to promote denominational service as a viable ministry opportunity. In the mid-1990s, 10 African Americans employed by Southern Baptists nationally, statewide and locally founded the organization. In 1997, 21 blacks became charter members.

Today more than 200 people of African descent serve the denomination at the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, WMU, Annuity Board, LifeWay Christian Resources, several seminaries and about 20 state conventions.

"It's a new day in the Southern Baptist Convention," said Smith, now director of the Florida Baptist Convention's African American ministries division and a denominational servant for 35 years.

Smith, a graduate of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, started his denominational service in Los Angeles in 1968 as a missionary for the Home Mission Board. He was called by the Sunday School Board in October 1978 as that entity's first ethnic liaison unit consultant.

"We have arrived at the point in the life of the SBC when we can no longer identify Southern Baptists by the color of their skin or the sound of their voice," Smith said. "It's a great day when a multicultural denomination can elect people of color [to serve its boards and entities]."

Multicultural is the correct word for a denomination that worships in 215 languages each Sunday in the United States, and hundreds more languages across the globe.

Ninety-five percent of 20,000 messengers to the SBC's annual meeting in Atlanta in 1995 voted to apologize to people of African descent for "the historic evil of condoning slavery" and for "individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

It was an apology two years in development, spurred by directors of missions responsible for work in the nation's metropolitan areas who felt thwarted in their efforts to build relationships with inner-city blacks.

It was an apology that dated to the denomination's birth. Slave-owning Baptists in the South in the 1840s were not being accepted as candidates for missionary service, so they started a denomination that would. That's the "historic evil" part of the apology.

It was an apology seen by some as insincere.

"African Americans outside the Southern Baptist Convention did not acknowledge, receive or believe any sincerity to it at all," said George W. McCalep, pastor of Greenforest Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., and president of the African American Fellowship. "And even in the [Southern Baptist] Convention among African Americans the question [rose], 'What next?'"

What came next was the impassioned response of Southern Baptists to the burning of numerous black churches across the South in 1996. The outpouring of concern and financial support said, "We're with you," to people of African descent, several leaders said as they expressed continuing appreciation for the support.

"For the most part, African Americans [in the SBC] appreciated the sentiment behind the apology," McCalep said. "I was interviewed by CNN right after the vote was taken and I said to them that [the apology] was more meaningful to white Southern Baptists than to black Southern Baptists. We weren't the ones in bondage.

"The fact of the matter is that white Southern Baptists were set free by the apology," McCalep continued. "If it had not passed, nothing would have changed for us. The freedom came in when white Southern Baptists acknowledged their sin."

Gary Frost, the North American Mission Board's vice president for strategic partnerships, was a member of the 14-person committee that drafted the apology resolution.

"It came about as Southern Baptists were celebrating their 150th anniversary," Frost said. "It was glaringly evident that part of the reason for the formation of the convention in 1845 was the slavery issue, and that was an improper motivation. So the apology was for the reasons for the formation of the convention, and also for the negligence of the convention to deal with race issues.

"Southern Baptists could have made a difference in the social dynamic of our nation if they had spoken out at the time about the issues of racism," Frost said.

The apology stood in contrast to convention action 31 years previously. Messengers at that annual meeting of the SBC voted to oppose Congress' historical vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The apology "was very significant," McCalep said. "In order to move forward, one must confess and repent and that's what white Southern Baptists did on that day.

"Southern Baptists are better because of the African American participation," McCalep continued. "African Americans bring a lot of expertise to the table that really should be tapped into, to help grow white churches. A real interesting statistic is that the estimated tenure of a white pastor is now up to about three years, and the average tenure of the African American pastor is like 27 and a half. Somebody needs to find out from African Americans how to increase the tenure of white pastors.

"And even in the matter of worship," McCalep continued, "you can look at the African American church and see a picture of a biblical style of worship that would help decrease these worship wars in white churches. We have white pastors come to our worship and enjoy themselves and say, 'I wish our churches were like that.' Well, they can be! Let us help. I have always said African Americans bring a lot to the banquet table that should be partaken of by the Anglo church."

Anglo leaders across the denomination agree.

"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 SBC Executive Committee since 1992. "We embrace and celebrate the inclusion of all our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we honor them as fellow laborers.

"Only God knows what wondrous things he will do in the years to come through the full participation of all the Southern Baptist family of faith."

Chapman added, "The Lord put into the heart of Dr. Richard Land [president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission] to help lead our convention to express its heart in the racial reconciliation resolution on the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention. I will always be grateful to the Lord for that.

"It was a holy moment indeed when the convention confessed and renounced racism in our own history, and cried out to God for holy strength and divine wisdom to deal with it in our own generation, and committed ourselves to sharing together in the great Kingdom enterprises he has called us all to," Chapman said. "[This] is not about political struggle or political rights. It is a spiritual matter and is of the very nature of God's redemption and of his Kingdom. ... Our fallen human nature requires us to be vigilant and watchful, lest we reflect the culture in rebellion to God, instead of shaping it."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://wwww.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FIRST SBC STAFFER, FELLOWSHIP'S LEADER, KEY CATALYST, FIRST FELLOWSHIP PRESIDENT and KEY VP.

Download Story