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African American Fellowship bleeds Southern Baptist

“The African American Fellowship is totally, through and through Southern Baptist,” said Walter Wilson, pastor of Lawton, Friendship. “We bleed Southern Baptist.”

However, this has not always been true for black Baptists in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Given Baptist history, combining African American and Southern Baptist would typically be an oxymoron. But the Southern Baptist Convention has shown a desire to rid itself of its racist past. An SBC resolution in 1995 “to repent of racism of which we have been guilty and to apologize to and ask forgiveness from African-Americans,” underscored that desire.

Ironically, the year before, in 1994 at Tangelo Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., the first official gathering took place of the National African American Fellowship (NAAF), which seeks to encourage African American churches to participate in Kingdom building through the Southern Baptist Convention.

NAAF, primarily comprised of African American pastors whose churches are members of SBC, was formed to address the needs of African American churches within the SBC.

The SBC was organized 165 years ago when Baptists in the South split from the national Triennial Convention and its extension, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, in a dispute over whether slave owners should become missionaries. Northern abolitionists objected to the idea, while Southern Baptists argued it was their right.

Although many blacks were initially members of SBC congregations—the churches of their slave masters—following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, blacks left the denomination by the droves. By 1890, out of more than 1 million SBC members, there were no African Americans. Black Baptists soon formed their own denominations, including the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., the National Baptist Convention of American and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Walter Wilson speaks during chapel services at OBU. (OBU PHOTO)

Walter Wilson speaks during chapel services at OBU. (OBU PHOTO)

Through the years, the SBC has strived to pursue racial inclusiveness and equality in the nation’s largest evangelical denomination. Evangelist Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist, helped achieve a change in attitude. A personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Graham was the one who penned the famous phrase, later attributed to King, that 11 o’clock Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in America.”

In 1971, a further strong shift in sentiment came when another prominent Southern Baptist, Graham’s pastor, W.A. Criswell of Dallas, First, told a press conference he had changed his mind about integration. He had written in a 1970 book, Look Up, Brother: “It had been my stated persuasion that we ought to go our separate ways . . . but as I prayed, searched the holy Scriptures, preached the Gospel and worked with our people, I came to the profound conclusion that to separate by coercion the Body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation was unthinkable, unchristian and unacceptable to God.”

Since the NAAF was formed, it has been on the leading edge of historical events. It has lobbied and seen members of its Fellowship both elected and appointed to key roles and positions in the SBC.

The stated objectives of NAAF are to help the SBC obtain a better understanding of the African American church, to encourage African American churches to participate in and support the programs and ministries of the SBC; to advise the SBC as it seeks to start, strengthen and involve African American churches in missions and to promote the appointment of at least one African American to the Board of Trustees in NAMB, IMB, LifeWay and GuideStone.

Until Wilson became pastor of Lawton, Friendship three years ago, there was no Oklahoma Fellowship of African Americans.

“I moved from Texas, where we had an African American Fellowship we formed in 1989, which had grown to more than 400 churches,” said Wilson. “When I got here, we set up a meeting the last day of the Church Planting Conference in Moore, and had 26 African American pastors present.”

Wilson said the pastors started the Oklahoma fellowship so they would have an avenue for the pastors to understand they are a part of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

“They felt they were kind of on the outside, and we needed something to pull us together and something we could use to undergird the convention,” Wilson said.

He said one of the main functions of the fellowship is to plant churches.

“Planting African American churches is different,” he explained. “Starting in a storefront doesn’t seem to work. They need a building which gives them an identity.”

Wilson said he is getting ready to plant a church now, and the only way he feels he can make it successful is for the new church to meet in Friendship’s facilities.

The Oklahoma African American Fellowship meets once a month, every third Saturday, usually at Solomon Temple in Del City.

“We put together a format of how we do church planting, invite someone to talk to us about church planting, talk about any problems with young pastors who are trying to format their churches, address needs and concerns of starting churches and preview new materials,” Wilson said of the monthly meetings.

LifeWay, he said, has created new Sunday School materials called YOU, intentionally focused on urban/multicultural believers.

Wilson said there is a strong contingency of National Baptists in Oklahoma, and they are striving to work with them, but the ideology is different.

“Southern Baptists are very Sunday School and Christian education oriented, while National Baptists’ focus is mainly on worship services,” said Wilson. “When you seek a young pastor, you first have to get him to buy in to the ideology of Southern Baptist life.”

Eric A. Mayes, the first African-American graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University in 1963, in an address at OBU in 2000, described black Baptists’ tendency to focus on preaching and fellowshipping instead of training for lay people in the church.

“We had a deplorable imbalance, and this imbalance resulted in no Christian education,” said Mayes, who served as executive secretary-treasurer of the Oklahoma Baptist State Convention and pastor of Unity Church in Oklahoma City. “The unconcern for teaching impeded the progress of churches that reduced the black church to a parasitic existence. An unawareness of the necessity of a vital teaching and training ministry impeded the growth process.”

Wilson said he hopes the Oklahoma AAF will become a force like it is in Texas.

“I hear about Hispanic, Native American and Asian congregations being strong in Oklahoma, and I don’t see any reason African Americans shouldn’t be on the same playing field,” he said.

Wilson, who is on the BGCO board of directors, said AAF is also trying to get African American churches to realize the cooperative way of giving is the greatest way to do Kingdom work.

President of the Oklahoma fellowship is William Noel, pastor of Oklahoma City, Grace and Glory,
Noel said he is not interested necessarily in making Southern Baptists, but is trying to build lives.

“Other denominations are not as interested in building lives—they are more interested in building pulpits and buildings,” he said.

Michael Williamson, second vice president of the BGCO, is a member of the African American Fellowship and serves as treasurer of the organization.

Dana Williamson

Author: Dana Williamson

Dana Williamson is a Special Correspondent for the Baptist Messenger

View more articles by Dana Williamson.

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