Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., made national headlines in 2001 for opening its doors to Temple Emanu-El during a two-year temple renovation, but what neither congregation knew at the time was that history was repeating itself.
Archives revealed that the Jewish congregation worshipped at the Baptist church’s brand new sanctuary for High Holy Days in 1913, because the Temple’s own building under construction at the time wasn’t completed in time for the observance.
“We didn’t realize we were recreating our history until much, much later,” Rabbi Jonathan Miller said Monday night at a screening of “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists Relations With Jews” sponsored by the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Southside Pastor Steve Jones said he wasn’t bothered by criticism that covering Christian symbols for Jewish services meant the Baptists were denying their identity or faith. He recalled one California evangelist who asked him what his church was doing to witness to the Jews.
“We’ve got 200 Jews coming into our sanctuary,” Jones said he told the preacher. “How many do you have?”
Miller said his congregation came to Southside Baptist Church not as an experiment, but because they needed a place to worship. He said he wanted to go to a church, rather than a public building like a school or library, because he wanted a meeting place that had a sense of holiness.
Miller said he looked forward to it because he had a sense of adventure, but it was a hard sell for some Temple members.
“I had a lot of resistance from my congregation,” Miller recalled. “I want the Baptists to understand, most of the people in the congregation had no desire whatsoever to go into a church, particularly a Baptist church.”
“They know what it is like to be excluded here in Birmingham, Alabama, because they are Jewish,” Miller said.
While some members of his congregation thought he was crazy, Miller pressed forward. “I thought that this would be something that would be very healing to a lot of people, and it was. It genuinely was healing to our congregation.”
“It totally transformed the way I work with and view Christians and appreciate Christians,” Miller said.
Jones recalled meeting with Jewish families nervous about what visiting family would think about their children’s bar mitzvahs being held in a church. “One of the things that happened as a result of that was the first young man that was bar mitzvahed said it was the most meaningful thing in his life,” Jones said. “How many kids get to say ‘I had my bar mitzvah in a Baptist church?'”
Southside isn’t the only Birmingham Baptist congregation linked to Temple Emanu-El. Baptist Church of the Covenant met there two years after splitting from First Baptist Church in 1970 over the issue of racial inclusivity.
Miller and Jones tell their story in the new DVD produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, which offers models for improving relations between Baptists and Jews, countering a history of ill will exemplified by Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith’s 1980 statement that “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”
“There’s nothing that says interfaith dialogue has to begin with and be centered on the issue of salvation,” said Robert Parham, BCE executive director. “That’s really a false model. What we’ve tried to do with this DVD is say there is another model, and that model is to think about virtues that we Christians think are the center of faith.”
Parham said the four “cardinal” virtues–wisdom, balance, courage and justice–are labeled with a word that in Latin means “hinge.”
“These are the hinge virtues that are supposed to open the door to a responsible life as a person of faith,” Parham said.
Earlier in the day about 20 Birmingham-area Baptist ministers saw the DVD in a luncheon screening.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.