I’m pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbia, a predominantly white, middle-class congregation in a college town in Missouri.
We haven’t always been so white throughout our 185 years of continual ministry. We had a healthy percentage of black members in the early years of our history.
In the 1830s, black members, both slave and free, sat with their white brothers and sisters in Christ during worship.
We have written records of black members speaking from the floor at church meetings from that same era. It was unusually egalitarian for its time, especially here in mid-Missouri.
Following the Civil War, most all black members of our church, all then free, decided to pull away from their mother church and start their own congregation, what is now the Second Missionary Baptist Church here in Columbia. Each departing member received a letter of dismission from First Baptist, along with a blessing as they began their new ministry work with pride, enthusiasm and faith.
In the intervening 144 years, relations between the two churches ran warmer or cooler. In the last couple of years, there has been great desire on the parts of both congregations to warm up and deepen our relationships.
With that in mind, I was intrigued to receive a copy of the DVD Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism. I viewed it and passed it along to Rev. Clyde Ruffin, pastor of Second Baptist, to see if he felt it was as well done as I considered it to be. The answer was yes. I then asked Rev. Ruffin if he would endorse a joint meeting of our two congregations to view the DVD together, and he agreed. In fact, they invited us to their new educational building as the venue for the viewing.
I wasn’t sure how many of our church folk would get excited enough to head to Second Baptist for the DVD. After all, we’re the white church, they’re the black church, and the subject would be racism. Church members have racist relatives living and dead; the topic engenders all manner of feelings; awkward things may be said.
Second Baptist planned on about 50 to attend, both churches combined. They went out of their way to arrange the room, set a beautiful table, prepare delicious refreshments, and more. I’m pleased to say that First Baptist alone had 55 in attendance, and Second Baptist provided 65, for a total of 120. Twice-plus the expectation.
The DVD was very well received. To get the discussion flowing, four people were asked to be initial responders to the DVD, two from each congregation. It flowed! Twenty or more attendees eagerly took turns speaking to the DVD content and their own life experience as Rev. Ruffin and I moderated the discussion. Speakers ranged from a 13-year-old black young man to a nearly 80-year-old white woman.
Following the discussion, most everyone stayed late eating cookies, drinking punch and talking for the longest time. Most conversations included members from both churches.
Toward the end of the discussion, the question was asked: What now? What do we do now? We’re not yet exactly sure, but I can pretty much guarantee that there will be a picnic this summer between the two churches. I expect that we will find ways to solicit participation from each church to get to know a member or family from the other church through sharing meals or hobbies or recreation or Bible study. A shared music night is another idea — one I pray will take place.
I’m very grateful for Beneath the Skin as it proved to be an excellent resource to bring our two very different congregations together for meaningful discussion and planning.
Yet, here’s the tension I feel in the always uncompleted nature of this work: Our two churches and many of our respective members from our reasonably well-educated, thoughtful city are a bit like the proverbial choir. It’s one thing to preach to that choir and another altogether to call racism a sin, demand courage to befriend the stranger and step up for the oppressed amidst people within whom racism still runs rampant. How to get the word to them, and especially to churches that do not own up to racism as a sin?
That word will come from us. It will come from more choirs large and small assembling, being strengthened, and gathering a language to expose social sins and deep-rooted stereotypes in order to promote repentance in individual lives, communities and churches.
While we have come a far piece in some ways, don’t think for a minute that the election of our first black president means that we now live in a post-racism society.
John Baker is pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo.