Showings of Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism in two tiny south Arkansas towns hit home.

Chester Thompson, pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Camden, Ark., and moderator-elect of CBF of Arkansas, helped host presentations of the DVD on racial attitudes, produced by, in the tiny community of Harrell, his hometown, and in Camden, a rural logging and farming town near the Louisiana border.

Something magic happened after the Harrell viewing.

In setting up for the panel discussion that followed, Thompson placed six chairs on the platform on either side of the pulpit. Before the DVD screening, the six panelists — three African Americans and three whites — were seated on the platform. The three African Americans sat together on one side and the three white participants were on the opposite side.

After we showed the DVD, somebody on stage commented that he noticed that tonight we were all sitting on sides by race and maybe we ought to mix it up, Thompson said. Another panelist said, ˜You know, I was thinking the same thing. Another said, ˜I was, too.’ So everybody got up and changed and mixed it up. The audience started clapping. It was powerful. It was the highlight of the evening.

Pictures from the screening of “Beneath the Skin”
at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Camden, Ark. (Photos by Chester Thompson)

Thompson said that is one of the major effects of the DVD on race relations in America. It gives people the opportunity to hear things and invites conversation among people who don’t look like each other, he said. It really prompts people to deal with real issues.

Thompson, an African American, estimates the racial mixture at the showing at the First Baptist Church of Harrell was about 50-50. He said a subsequent showing in Camden reflected just as much diversity.

After the showing in Camden, a lot of people got together and discussed strategies on how we want to proceed in the community, he said. We made covenants to come together and work through the strategies. We’re going to pick one and go after that, and we’ve committed to go through each one until they’re all done.

One of the main priorities is raising the literacy rate. Again, something magic happened.

One of the people who was there was the chancellor of SAU-Tech, a technical school in Camden, who is passionate about increasing literacy rates. He told us SAU-Tech was available to provide facilities and to do all it can to help us in that area, Thompson said.

Thompson said all of the evening’s benefits didn’t necessarily develop from people who agreed.

After the showing, a county judge spoke up and said he didn’t agree with everything that was presented, Thompson said. I told him you don’t have to agree with everything. But this is giving us an opportunity to talk about these things. And the most important thing is the conversation.

There was a pastor in the audience who spoke up during the discussion and first said, ˜Maybe I don’t need to say this.’ I told him that he needed to say what he wanted to say, Thompson recalled. I told him that one of the problems is people are not saying what they really mean. We need to say those things.

That following Sunday morning, Thompson was approached by a woman — a teacher in his congregation. She told him of a special service that First Baptist Church in Camden, a white congregation, was holding the next Sunday honoring teachers in the community.

I know you always say we need to be in our church on Sunday morning, she told Thompson. But I remember from that DVD that it mentioned that Sunday at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America. I think I really need to go to that church Sunday.

Thompson said he didn’t hesitate. You certainly do, he told her. Go to that service.

And that’s one of the main things that is emerging from our discussions, Thompson added. If change is going to happen, it has to begin with the church.

David McCollum is a contributing editor to

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