For Heaven’s Sake: Racial Reconciliation Becomes a Priority For the Religious Right
June 23, 1997
Reasons Are Strictly Biblical,
Not the Social Ideals
Of Liberal Congregations
Behold a `Miracle in Memphis’
The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon
BRUNSWICK , Ga. — In the pitch dark of an early Sunday morning last summer, four members of a local black family — Edward Bailey, his wife, their daughter and a granddaughter — died in a gruesome auto accident. As funeral preparations began, family and friends quickly realized that no black church in town was big enough to hold the anticipated crush of mourners.
First Baptist Church stepped forward to help. On the day of the funeral, more than 2,000 African-Americans crowded the long wooden pews inside the stately church, with its tall stone columns and the largest sanctuary in town.
Anywhere else, such a trifling act of small-town goodwill might have been unremarkable. Here deep in the once-segregated South, however, it was one more manifestation of a profound and startling shift among the most conservative of religious believers. For the Bailey ceremony was the first black funeral that church leaders can recall having ever been held at the all-white Southern Baptist church, the oldest congregation in a town whose churches had been firmly separated since the day First Baptist’s slave members departed to form their own congregation — in 1862.
Whites at First Baptist say they were just being neighborly. But for many African-Americans in town, the Bailey funeral marked a turning point. “It was a sign that their doors are open,” says the Rev. Rance Pettibone, pastor of First African Baptist Church, the black congregation that broke away during the Civil War.
At a time when Americans share a pervasive sense that relations among the races are at best stagnant and at worst declining precipitously, the most energetic element of society addressing racial divisions may also seem the most unlikely: the religious right.
Across the country, conservative congregations and denominations, while sticking to other stringent principles of conservative religious thinking such as the proscription of homosexuality and abortion, are embracing a concept called “biblical racial reconciliation” — a belief that as part of their efforts to please God, they are required by Scripture to work for racial harmony.
In Denver, the charismatic 12,000-member Heritage Christian Center, which was almost all white at the end of the 1980s, is today 50% African-American. Last November, eight black churches and five white congregations in Tupelo, Miss., held a joint revival on fighting racism. In 1995, the traditionally white National Association of Evangelicals — comprising 35,000 congregations — formally asked the National Black Association of Evangelicals to forgive its past racism.
The sudden rise in conservative activism on race coincides with a marked decline in the energy of many congregations in traditional liberal denominations, such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians, in pursuing the same issues. While the denominations maintain strong policies advocating racial equality, some congregations where civil-rights fervor once burned hot have been demoralized, theologians say, by a perception that past efforts accomplished little.
“The liberals thought we could march around and pass a few laws and racism would go away. When it didn’t, we gave up,” says the Rev. Nibs Stroupe, pastor of Atlanta’s Oakhurst Presbyterian, one of the small percentage of significantly integrated liberal congregations.
Of course, skeptics abound both on the left and the right, warning that the new interest in race may be even less firmly rooted among conservatives than among liberals. Thus far, the movement has indeed been much wider than it is deep. While hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians have participated in multiracial pulpit exchanges, church socials, religious conferences and revivals, the conservative congregations — like those of liberal denominations — remain for the most part starkly segregated.
That may be changing. For the reconciliation movement is occurring at the nexus of two powerful currents in society: the explosion of evangelical churches and the maturing of conservatives who came of age after the end of segregation.
But evangelicals believe something much more profound than social evolution is occurring. They say racial reconciliation is, simply put, stirred by the hand of God. “The Holy Spirit is speaking to this generation,” says the Rev. Rick Snow, the white pastor of suburban Atlanta Christian Center. “Men of God and women of God [must] stand up and say, `This is wrong. This is racism. This is sin. Call it for what it is.'”
The movement is all the more remarkable because the churches today embracing racial reconciliation descend from a religious lineage that in many cases endorsed slavery a century ago, fiercely resisted the civil-rights movement and in the recent past showed a profound lack of interest in issues of race. As recently as the 1960s, church historians say, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, openly argued that the Bible ordained separation of the races and the Jim Crow laws that enforced it in the South.
“White conservative evangelicalism was wrong on race — absolutely, painfully and deeply and very unbiblically,” says Jim Wallis of the Washington-based evangelical group Sojourners. “It’s the thing white evangelicalism has been most wrong about.”
But the generation of pastors and deacons who at times physically barred the doors of lily-white churches against African-Americans in the 1960s is passing away. Taking their place are fortysomething church leaders energized by a new wave of conservative Christian evangelism, which seeks to win followers both from nonbelievers and from other branches of Christianity. For them, the impetus for eradicating race problems isn’t politics. It is spreading their interpretation of the Gospel to anyone who will listen, black or white.
“A lot of what we are seeing today is due in part to a kind of changing of the guard,” says the Rev. John Connell, First Baptist’s 43-year-old pastor. “The church leadership we grew up with had a different attitude. . . . Why they weren’t open to it 30 or 40 years ago was more cultural than biblical. To us, race isn’t an issue.”
“Conservative Christians have moved beyond all that,” Mr. Connell adds. “This has more to do with evangelism and salvation than social issues.”
The origins of the reconciliation movement appear to trace back to independent churches, such as Mr. Snow’s, formed outside the mainstream denominations in the 1970s and early 1980s, whose followers fused rigid moral positions with Age-of-Aquarius notions of human harmony.
Atlanta Christian Center, for example, was founded on Independence Day in 1976 by a few members sent to proselytize by an evangelical congregation in Fairbanks, Alaska. Here, the faithful sing and wave their arms through a rousing service of contemporary, upbeat songs, prayers and sermons. Church doctrines decry homosexuality and abortion. A giant world map on the wall of the sanctuary identifies countries where Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced as “strongholds of Satan.” Men are viewed as natural leaders of their families.
But on race relations, the 750-member church has achieved a degree of ethnic balance that the most activist liberal congregation would envy. On a recent Sunday, half the members in attendance were African-American, some wearing dashikis, others in conservative suits and dresses.
Mixed-race couples are welcome. Sunday evenings, small integrated groups of members matched up through the church gather casually at each others’ homes for dinner and socializing.
During the past decade, churches like Atlanta Christian Center have grown exponentially both in membership and numbers of congregations. The interest in race broadened even further in the past two years, in part because of Promise Keepers, the Denver-based men’s Christian group that hosted a 22-city conference tour last year with reconciliation as the marquee issue. More than a million men attended, the group says.
The most dramatic moment yet in the reconciliation movement, however, was at what has come to be called by evangelicals “the miracle in Memphis.”
In 1994, before a stunned crowd of about 2,000 Pentecostals at a convocation in Memphis of the major black and white Pentecostal denominations, a pastor from the overwhelmingly white Assemblies of God unexpectedly appeared carrying a basin filled with water — actually a cookie tin scrounged from an adjacent office–and knelt before Bishop Ithiel Clemmons, a black pastor from New York’s borough of Brooklyn.
His head bowed, the Rev. Don Evans, the white minister from Tampa, Fla., begged forgiveness for the past racism of white Pentecostals as he gently washed the feet of the startled African-American leader — the quintessential act of New Testament humility.
Moments later, a black church leader from Los Angeles, representing the largest black Pentecostal group, washed the feet of the top officer of the Assemblies of God. A member of the audience began to speak in tongues — the sign among Pentecostals that God has filled a soul with the Holy Spirit. “It was, we feel, a heavenly confirmation of an earthly act,” Mr. Evans says.
Later that day, the black and white branches of the Pentecostal movement, representing more than five million followers, voted to dissolve the two associations of Pentecostal denominations, one black and one white, which had separated them since 1914, to form a new, multiethnic organization aimed at reuniting their churches.
“The miracle in Memphis was a very authentic moment,” says Bishop Clemmons, of the mostly black Church of God in Christ, who was elected to lead the new organization, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America, which serves as an umbrella group for the numerous denominations that made up the two Pentecostal associations.
Still, he cautions: “Does it presage blacks who were not hitherto welcome in white churches now being welcome? Does it presage partnership at the pedestrian level or is it a nice club of successful black and white leaders who decide to get together? These are the issues that are difficult and require constant focus and lots of work.”
Unlike liberal churches that embraced the secular concept of civil rights in the 1960s, the racial-reconciliation movement is propelled by an overwhelming desire to win new believers, thereby “reconciling” humans to Jesus Christ.
Given that religious imperative, the larger agenda of civil rights — combating poverty, crime and discrimination — is irrelevant to many followers. “It’s not my responsibility to prosper someone materially,” says Gilbert Kelly, a black member of Atlanta Christian Center. “My responsibility is to share with them truth and wisdom that will enable them, by lining their lives up with that truth and wisdom, to prosper.”
That perspective could be the movement’s Achilles’ heel, say liberal and conservative activists. “The real test of the evangelicals will be when the complicated issues, like poor people, come up,” says Oakhurst Presbyterian’s Mr. Stroupe. Sojourner’s Mr. Wallis adds: It must be more, “than standing around the campfire singing Kumbaya to each other.”
It is that — or worse — that Zack Lyde sees in the glow around First Baptist and other white churches now talking about race back in Brunswick, a humid colonial harbor town of 18,000, where Spanish moss droops from the massive live oaks outside the county courthouse.
It “is no different than when the slavemaster had the slave in the church so he could teach him . . . of the duty to obey him, of acceptance of the condition of bondage,” contends Mr. Lyde, a local activist and pastor of a black Missionary Baptist church. First Baptist, Mr. Lyde says, should spend its time working to eradicate poverty among blacks, not recruiting them.
That kind of social agenda is the last thing on the mind of Carrie Shecutt, 41, an African-American saleswoman for a paging service. She and her husband, Ronald, have been shopping for a church. They have ruled out several traditional black congregations and instead are considering First Baptist and Buckingham Place Church of God, a fast-growing Pentecostal church on the edge of town that is about 20% African-American. For the past several months, they have been attending both, trying to choose between the freewheeling tenor of Buckingham and the more traditional tone of First Baptist.
Both churches are working feverishly to attract new members: The Rev. James Simpson of Buckingham assigns teams to evangelize particular streets. A huge map on the wall of the sanctuary shows targeted areas, with the heading “Taking Glynn County, Block by Block.”
“If they breathe, we want them. The word of God supersedes politics, supersedes people, supersedes race,” Mr. Simpson says. “Anyone who does not believe that cannot really embrace Jesus Christ.”
Earlier this year, volunteers from First Baptist called every residence in the county, including its black neighborhoods, inviting families to visit. A few weeks ago, First Baptist added an elderly retiree to the church roster, its only black member. “That was pretty exciting,” Mr. Connell says. “I’ve said from the pulpit that our congregation has to be open to anyone and everyone.”
Nonetheless, despite First Baptist’s insistence that it never excluded blacks, it isn’t easy to overcome the perception that it, like other traditional white churches, might be unfriendly to having a mixed-race congregation. “There was a long period of time that that was a no-no,” Brunswick Mayor Homer Wilson says. Even Ms. Shecutt says she has felt a chill at times from older members of the church as she slipped onto a pew in the sanctuary.
But after receiving a warm invitation during the telephone campaign, she is convinced that First Baptist’s reconciliation talk is for real. The Shecutts have decided to join there.
“I know for a fact that everybody probably won’t like it,” Ms. Shecutt says. “But I’m not going there for them. It’s personal, between me and God.”
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)