Mississippi church seeks racial reconciliation
OXFORD, Miss. (BP) -- When First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., passed a resolution apologizing for its 1968 decision to exclude African Americans from worship services, it opened the door for racial reconciliation in its city.
"I had never seen a church or any organization move that seriously toward repentance and then apologize without any excuse," said Andrew Robinson, pastor of Oxford's historically black Second Baptist Church, a National Baptist congregation that accepted the apology and granted forgiveness.
Since the apology -- which was reported by Memphis and Tupelo news outlets -- First Baptist has participated in a community-wide interracial worship service, talked with local black congregations about how to partner in evangelism and ministry and experienced moments of personal reconciliation between white and black believers.
There have been "amazing moments of reconciliation and forgiveness," Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist, told Baptist Press.
"We have the opportunity to now bring the redemption of Christ to bear in this situation," Hankins said. "The bottom line is that something has been done that is wrong. We've recognized it, and we're going to leave our gift at the altar until we go get this right so we can be correct in our worship. That's the appropriate response to a sin of the past."
The resolution says that First Baptist "declare[s] as utterly sinful the vote in April 1968 to exclude African-Americans from worship." The apology "unequivocally denounce[s] racism in all its manifestations as a sin against Almighty God."
Although the 1960s in Oxford were an "extremely difficult" time, according to the resolution, "such difficulties in no way excuse what was done."
The resolution continues, we "repent ... with our whole heart. We seek the forgiveness of the Lord and of African-Americans who were and are still hurt by these things, and we hope they will extend such forgiveness to us."
Hankins, 42, arrived at First Baptist in 2005 and occasionally heard older members say the church had been on the wrong side of civil rights issues. But it wasn't until late last year, when deacon emeritus Sylvester Moorhead gave him a copy of deacon minutes from 1968, that Hankins got the full story.
Realizing that African Americans were testing whether they could be admitted to various churches across the South, the deacons suggested that First Baptist develop a policy related to black worshippers. Moorhead moved that the deacons recommend an open-door policy for worshippers of all races, and despite some opposition the recommendation was approved by the deacon body.
When it came before the church though, it was voted down on a secret ballot in a special business session after a Sunday morning worship service.
"The church understood the voting down of the open-door policy to be an approval of a closed-door policy," Hankins said.
In the succeeding years, First Baptist used the vote as a basis for denying blacks access to its resources and facilities. Once it refused to host a communitywide prayer event because blacks would be in attendance. On another occasion, the church would not let its bus be used to transport black children to a backyard Bible club.
But by the mid-1970s, blacks began to attend worship, with the first African American joining in 1980 and the church enjoying increasingly warm relationships with blacks in Oxford. Still, the vote not to welcome African Americans had never been overturned.
So Hankins worked with the deacons to craft a resolution nullifying and apologizing for the 1968 decision. He also preached on corporate repentance and gave the church body opportunities to ask questions and offer amendments to the resolution. On July 21 the church adopted the resolution with more than 600 members voting for it and only four voting against it.
"It was high time," Moorhead, 93, said of the church's apology. "On the other hand, racism doesn't die that easily, and I'm sure we've got some people that still internally are a bit racist. But now they sort of feel like they're in the minority and they won't speak out."
Hankins is quick to point out that not everyone in the church was on the wrong side of civil rights issues in 1968. Moorhead, for one, came to Mississippi from Colorado in 1949 to serve as a professor of education at the University of Mississippi. He and his wife were shocked by the racism they saw and considered leaving the state before deciding to stay in an effort to influence others. Moorhead became dean of the university's school of education in 1960 and was instrumental in bringing black professors onto the faculty.
Several members of First Baptist helped make public school integration in Oxford one of the smoothest such efforts in the South, refusing to start private schools for white students to maintain segregation, according to Hankins.
"It would have been exceedingly rare that a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi in the 1960s would even have considered the issue of whether or not to have an open-door policy," Hankins said. "Our church was unique in that it was struggling to try to do what was right."
Nevertheless, corporate repentance was required, he said. Hankins taught the church from 2 Samuel 21 that sin can have ongoing consequences in a community and must be repented of, even after those most responsible for it have died. In 2 Samuel, Israel was experiencing a famine because Saul had broken a covenant with the Gibeonites. Even though Saul was dead, David had to lead the nation in making atonement in order to end the famine.
"David doesn't say, 'I didn't do that. It was Saul. That was not my generation. That's the previous generation,'" Hankins said. First Baptist stands "in continuity as one body" and must repent of the church's past sins.
Since the apology, "lots of doors have been opening" for racial reconciliation, Hankins said. For example, a black man from a local Methodist church told Hankins that when he was a teenager, youth groups from around the city began meeting together for encouragement and fellowship. But First Baptist stopped the gatherings because they were interracial. Hankins apologized for his church's actions, and the man in turn apologized for his own racist attitudes in the past toward white people.
Robinson, the pastor at Second Baptist, said that if more churches with racist pasts followed First Baptist's lead, hearts of lost African Americans might open to the Gospel.
For some blacks, First Baptist's repentance "will enable them to let go of some of that pressure that keeps their hands closed or their hearts set against the possibility of being witnessed to by white or black pastors. I do believe that when people see acts of repentance, acts of kindness extended such as this, it speaks volumes," Robinson said.
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).