Southern Baptists set aside a day in February for recognition of Race Relations Sunday. While this can be directed in multiple ways, it has often emphasized the black-white relationship among Baptists. It is a needed and growing interaction that is long past due.
Southern Baptists were born in the midst of the slavery issue. Since Southern Baptists were located in the South, many were slave owners. When the Civil War took place, Southern Baptists were primarily Confederate. During the years that followed, Southern Baptists were slow in opening church membership to blacks. Our first 125 years were marked by prejudice. We were slow to move beyond culturally inculcated discrimination.
Indeed, our corporate prejudices toward blacks became the subject of a resolution on racial reconciliation approved June 1995 at the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, Ga. It was right and far overdue. There have always been those among us who stood for equality and respect for all people, no matter what their race. Unfortunately, the number was too few and not nearly loud enough.
Repentance means a change of mind and direction. Southern Baptists from the Deep South to the large cities across America have made significant strides. African-American Southern Baptist churches dot the landscape and are full partners in the work we do cooperatively. Black Christians serve on associational, state and national committees and boards. To most of us they are not black and others white, but simply brothers and sisters in Christ.
Some years ago, Oklahoma Baptists made a strategic decision. For decades, we had financially supported work among National Baptists. We did not start primarily black churches, but left that work to National and Progressive Baptists. It somehow did not seem right. First, National and Progressive have their own conventions and can support their own work. Second, we had churches of every ethnic background with the exception of African-American.
We consciously decided to gradually withdraw our support for other conventions, and we began the journey of planting churches designed to reach Oklahoma’s black communities. Our progress has been slow, but steady. Black churches can be found across our state convention, and our black brothers and sisters enrich our ministries and make us better as they serve among us in various ways.
Another significant step has been the integration of our local churches. Traveling across Oklahoma, one finds blacks and other ethnics as vital members of our local congregations. Many are leaders in our churches. Southern Baptists in Oklahoma and nationally are no longer white middle class—we are red, yellow, black and white. In fact, Southern Baptists are the most ethnically diverse denomination to be found.
Galatians 3:28 says it well: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are all a part of the church of Christ.
To say that prejudice has been totally eradicated among Southern Baptists would be a boastful and untrue statement. But we have made remarkable progress and continue to move toward the day when color will not separate us. We are a richer people for it. We are more like the church Christ intends us to be.
Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.