The DVD screening, sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, brought old and painful memories to many in the diverse audience of about 170–a 60-40 mix of white and minorities.
About 100 steps from the worship center, where the Baptist Center for Ethics’ DVD on race relations was shown, was where the late Brooks Hays taught his popular Sunday school class. Hays was a member of the church who became a lay president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1950s. Because of his stand on racial equality in the aftermath of the Little Rock Central School crisis of 1957, Hays lost his seat in congress to a segregationist, write-in candidate.
The DVD screening, sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, brought old and painful memories to many in the diverse audience of about 170—a 60-40 mix of white and minorities.
But a panel discussion afterward produced a call to action as the group of panelists and speakers didn’t just identify or amplify the attitudes highlighted by the DVD, but wrestled with them.
“It may not be so much that God is using the church to heal the problems of race, but that God is using race to heal the problems of the church,” said Mark DeYmaz, directional leader of the Mosaic Church in Little Rock, a diverse congregation that represents at least 30 nations. “This is not just about racial reconciliation. It’s about reconciling men to God through Jesus Christ.”
“Churches say they want to reach everybody. What about putting on staff someone who looks like that person who is everybody?” said Mary Ferguson, a partner in a pioneer race relations ministry in Arkansas for years with her late husband, Bob Ferguson.
DeYmaz cited research showing that the evangelical church in America is the No. 1 institution perpetuating systemic racism in America. “And I thought we were supposed to be the good guys,” he said. “Building bridges to communities sometimes doesn’t mean a thing because we can go back across that bridge and go home and wash our hands.”
“Churches who spend time and resources just in church are unable to endure because they are missing the basic tenet of Christ, which is love and creating a community of love,” said Sybil Hampton, president emeritus of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
Fitz Hill, president of Arkansas Baptist College—a growing institution that has as its core mission educating black youngsters who might not ordinarily attend college—told a story from his head football coaching days at San Jose State University.
The Spartans had lost four games one season by a total of 12 points, all in the last two minutes. During an alumni gathering that season, Hill said a couple of major boosters approached him.
“There was wine at the reception and when the alumni start drinking, then the racial attitudes come to the forefront,” Hill said. “They told me that if I had more white coaches on my coaching staff, we’d have won a few more games. Since they had been drinking, I knew they were speaking what they really felt.”
Hill noted that he had a better record at San Jose State than the two previous coaches, both of whom were white and held in high regard by the boosters.
“Based on the logic of what you have told me, I have to assume that you told those coaches a few years ago that the reason they didn’t win a few more games was they didn’t have enough black coaches on their staff,” Hill said he told them.
The boosters, taken aback, apologized and a cordial conversation followed.
“Sometimes you have to find creative ways to attack those attitudes without being confrontational,” said Hill, who appears in “Beneath the Skin.”
Wendell Griffen, an African-American Baptist minister and court of appeals judge, addressed the topic of community and responsibility.
“Communities that are not safe have not always been not safe,” said Griffen. “They are not safe because the ones who left did not care about the pain of crime in their communities. We have to learn to share our power, our privilege, our wealth and our pain.”
With the need for better communication and understanding acknowledged, the dialogue turned to risk-taking in racial contexts.
“We can’t steal second base by keeping one foot on first,” Griffen said. “We want to keep a foot on first and still claim progress.”
“How can you read the Sermon on the Mount and not believe Christ came for everybody?” said panel moderator Marion Humphrey, a circuit judge and African-American Presbyterian minister.
“Good question,” said Ferguson. “But why didn’t Jonah care about everybody? Same principle. The attitudes have always been around.”
“The shift in society we’re seeing is taking us out of our comfort zone,” said Steven Arnold, pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church, a large, primarily African-American congregation in Little Rock. “We have to challenge ourselves to learn about each other’s creations and struggles. Then the greatest challenge becomes to love, to love unconditionally and to love the soul of mankind.”
Hill added: “What scares us is like a broken ankle. We don’t want to walk on it. But we must eventually walk on it for it to be healed.”
The foundation of healing can be set at a young age.
Ferguson recalled that her 6-year-old grandson recently attended a service in which an African-American pastor and his choir, featuring a powerful soloist, handled the worship service. Afterwards, Ferguson said her grandson told his mother, “I want to meet that lady (soloist) who put that bumpity in my heart.”
“We need to put our mercy where our mouths are,” said Griffen.
Significantly, the conversations, which lasted 30 minutes past the allotted time, didn’t end with the benediction. People, of different races and ages, didn’t leave immediately but mingled informally and talked to each other: longtime friends, old friends who had not seen each other in a while, and new acquaintances who wanted to know each other better. The overheard conversations were substantive, not trivial.
That went on for another 30 minutes before people began to scatter on a cold evening warmed and transformed by relationships, dialogue and bumpity moments. Lots of them.
David McCollum, a member of SecondBaptistChurch, Little Rock, is a sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper in Conway, Ark.