HOUSTON, Texas — A panel attempted to unravel several tangled strands from “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism” during a screening of the award-winning documentary at the Baptist Center for Ethics luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Assembly July 2.
“It’s time to get off our behinds and do what needs to be done about bringing about change and about bringing about reconciliation,” said Chester Thompson, an African-American pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Camden, Ark., and current moderator of CBF of Arkansas.
A screening of the DVD on racial issues and attitudes in America led to a panel discussion involving Thompson, Javier Elizondo, executive vice president and provost of the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, and John Ogletree, pastor of the First Metropolitan Church of Houston and former chair of the executive board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Part of the process is a dialogue that Ogletree characterized as the Christian act of “loving conversation.”
“What we all have in common is none of us had the chance of deciding which race we would be,” said Ogletree, an African-American. “Why should a lack of choice be an issue with someone else who had no choice either? But we all had the choice to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That put us in a new family, a kingdom reality and new relationships with one another.”
But questions during an open discussion among the audience of church leaders, lay leaders and pastors illustrated how complex the issues become when idealism meets reality.
Why don’t church staffs and organizations reflect the reconciliation and diversity that is talked about?
“One of the major steps is to consider the need for churches to have their staff represent what they want to see in their city or community,” Thompson said.
“Our African-American churches need to do the same,” said Ogletree adding, “One action item that needs to be done is to bring diversity to your decision-making group. When I see an entity that does not include diversity, I see a whites-only sign.”
What about more cooperation by CBF with other ethnic religious organizations, which were having conventions at the same time in Texas?
Elizondo, of Mexican descent, pointed out that Hispanics are often stereotyped and lumped into a single group, and that leads to further complications.
“There are major cultural differences from Cubans to Mexicans to Argentines to Brazilians to Colombians,” he said. “You see us as homogenous and we’re not homogenous. Just bringing all Hispanics together is a challenge. The more elements you bring together, the harder it is to get it done. It is no accident that the first conflict of the early church (in Acts) was basically an ethnic conflict.”
Does having a younger generation more accustomed to ethnic diversity and difference make it easier for change?
“Young people don’t understand the anger and the passion of older generations on these issues,” Elizondo said. “They think those who have suffered are a bunch of whiners. The current pain and the pain of the past are very different. The deeper the pain, the deeper the anger, the deeper the sickness, the deeper the suffering, the harder it is to overcome. These younger generations have not experienced the insidious nature of racism.”
Added Ogletree, “It may be rare nowadays for young individuals to use racist language, but institutions may be doing that for us.”
“Making new friends is a first step that is vitally important,” said Thompson. “As long as you stay on your side of the room, nothing is going to happen. We have to begin crossing over lines and coming out of comfort zones and become agents of change in our communities. It’s a human being problem and the only way to deal with a human being problem is the word of God.”
More than 250 people attended the luncheon, and about 10 percent purchased the “Beneath the Skin” DVD afterwards to initiate similar discussions in their own churches and communities.
“There have been times in our marriage that I have offended my wife,” Ogletree said. “I’ll get her flowers or cards, but she still wants that dialogue. She still wants to talk about it because it brings closure.”
However, he said, “Reconciliation cannot take place without some reconciling acts. It’s a process. And we need to be intentional.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.