Last week, I had the great privilege of spending time with a growing group of ethnic leaders who are pioneers in our convention. When I think of pioneers, I think of people who have ventured into new territory and who are willing to face the challenges of finding new ground on which to stand. These early pioneers in the American westward movement faced a long and difficult journey to a new frontier filled with many dangers. I am glad they took the risk. We who live in the west owe our existence to them.

These new pioneers in our convention are our African American leaders. For decades, Oklahoma supported the National Baptist work among our black population in Oklahoma. We had a fraternal agreement that, in essence, kept the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) from developing work among blacks, leaving that work to black Baptists. More than a decade ago, I proposed to our BGCO leaders that we take a new direction.

I could not see why the most diverse denomination in Oklahoma and America could not open the frontier to reach blacks with the Gospel and start Southern Baptist African American congregations. So we dissolved the relationship, not to reject, but to expand our fellowship so there would be no racial barriers.

As I surveyed the room of African American pastors and leaders, my heart leapt with joy. These men and women are pioneers in claiming a new territory in Oklahoma Baptist life. They are the ones who have risked isolation, and sometimes rejection, because they have chosen to be Southern Baptists. These are the pioneers who have been willing to risk rejection in a new fellowship to make Oklahoma Baptists color blind.

Today, these leaders are cherished friends and fellow leaders who bring a rich heritage of faith and deep commitment to Christ and His church. They have taught me and allowed me, and other BGCO leaders, to invade their territory. We have been welcomed and honored. These African American leaders add spiritual flavor and richness to Oklahoma Baptist life.

During this last decade, we have had African Americans serve on the BGCO Board of Directors. They have also served as officers of the convention.

Year by year, Oklahoma grows in the number of churches planted and choosing to affiliate with the BGCO. Some of these churches have become multiethnic. Recently, I was at Lawton, Northside, where an African American congregation and an Anglo congregation merged. I am so proud of them.

I am impressed by these pioneers. This has been a learning process for them and for those of us who welcome them. Our African American leaders and congregations have no history with the Cooperative Program (CP). I have found that as we show them the remarkable reach and good work accomplished through the CP, the churches respond. These churches will grow in the support of the CP in years to come. This is true of all our ethnic groups—they are catching on. In many cases, the CP helped birth their churches.

Walter Wilson, president of the African American Fellowship of Oklahoma and pastor of Lawton, Friendship, serves on the Board of Directors of the BGCO. He is a great friend. I thank God for his pioneering spirit and willingness to teach us how to better relate to our African American churches and serve as a bridge to the African American community across Oklahoma.

We now have more than 30 primarily black churches in our convention, and I am sure there will be more in the days ahead. This is the way it should be.