SBC integration recognized with award 46 years later

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)--The year was 1951. Black people were not allowed into white public schools. They couldn't drink from the same water fountains or use the same rest rooms as white people. The Civil Rights Act would not be passed for another 12 years.

But 46 years ago, before black people won some of the most important battles of their race, one important integration of African Americans into a predominately Caucasian culture was sanctioned. The first black church ever -- Community Baptist of Santa Rosa, Calif. -- was allowed to join the Southern Baptist Convention.

The current African American pastor of Community Baptist and the white Southern Baptist leader who cast the deciding vote to admit the church into the Redwood Empire Baptist Association were honored during Black Church Leadership Week, Aug. 4-8, at Glorieta (N.M.) Conference Center.

Norris Fulfer, now associate pastor of Rose Drive Baptist Church, Yorbalinda, Calif., and James Coffee, pastor of Community Baptist, received the second-ever African American Southern Baptist Convention Heritage Award Aug. 6. The award is given to honor those people who have made a contribution to black churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, according to Jay Wells, the Sunday School Board's director of black church development and coordinator of Black Church Leadership Week.

The award was given last year to John Cross, who was pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Ala., when a racist bomb blast killed four young African American girls in 1963 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Coffee did not become pastor of Community Baptist Church until about eight years after it joined the SBC, but he is well aware of the historical event that made it happen.

Describing Santa Rosa and Sonoma County as a community without a strong black presence in the 1950s, Coffee said African Americans who wanted to attend church services showed up regularly at the predominately white College Avenue Baptist Church in Santa Rosa. The black group eventually broke off as a mission of College Avenue, and James Dotson, the white pastor at College Avenue, petitioned officers of Redwood Empire association to accept the mission church into their Southern Baptist fellowship.

"The church didn't attempt to join the SBC out of protest for integration," Coffee said. "It was just a move of necessity. It wasn't planned. It happened almost like an accident."

However, resistance from the Southern Baptist association and state was imminent, he said.

When it came time for associational leaders to vote on admitting the church into Redwood Empire, the vote was tied and Fulfer, the association's moderator, had to cast the deciding vote.

He decided to let them join.

"I received a lot of threats after that, and a lot of people said some ugly things to me and Washington Boyce (then pastor of Community Baptist)," Fulfer said. "But now I'm grateful God let me be a part of it.

"I believe it would have happened a few years later, but I'm glad God used my vote to bring white people and black people together in Southern Baptist life."

Eventually, California Baptists and the whole SBC deferred to the association's decision, and Community Baptist became the first African American church officially accepted into the Southern Baptist Convention.

Coffee stated it differently.

"We were the first black church that ever accepted the Southern Baptist Convention," he said jokingly.

"Some people in the Southern Baptist Convention don't even know the SBC has not always been open to blacks," said Coffee, who has been pastor of Community Baptist Church for 38 years. "We need to get it out in the open, and then we need to bury the hatchet and start doing the work of the Lord and fight the real enemy."

Coffee said he believes black churches should reach out to white churches, instead of the other way around.

"White folks have a lot of guilt, and black folks need to reach out to them. We've been waiting for white churches to say 'Come to us,' but we need to say to the white churches, 'Come to us.'

"Racism is a sin, and it works both ways. I can't say I'm color blind because I'm not. But we can't reach out to each other until we put our differences to rest."

Black Church Leadership Week is coordinated by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board and sponsored by the SBC International Mission and North American Mission boards, Woman's Missionary Union and the Annuity Board.

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