All God's children

Alabama's largest private university suspends its community preaching program after white churches turn away young black preachers.

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One fine Sunday in the Deep South, a black divinity student shows up on the steps of a white church to worship and praise the Lord. When he tries to come inside to take part in the service, however, a group of white men converge at the entrance to tell him that he's not welcome.

It sounds like a snapshot from Selma, Ala., circa 1965, or a melodramatic scene from the movie "Mississippi Burning." But it's not. It happened last month to an African student from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. The student was participating in a program in which divinity students preparing to become Baptist ministers are sent out to preach at local Baptist churches. When the student showed up to deliver his sermon to a predominantly white congregation, he was not allowed to enter the church.

This isn't the first time this type of confrontation has occurred. "There have been several incidents reported over a period of time," said Dr. Thomas E. Corts, president of Samford University. "It's not widespread. Some of our African students have had wonderful experiences in rural churches around the state. But there are some pockets of concern."

The 50-year-old program is called H-Day -- for Howard College, the university's original name. During the school year the divinity students are rotated to preach in a different church each Sunday, and the churches provide the students with a $75 honorarium for each sermon. The program, which has been managed by Samford students since its inception, is designed to give the students practical in-church experience to supplement their coursework.

According to Corts, the directors of missions within the local Baptist association place a request with Samford's divinity school when they want a student to come preach at their church. The trouble began when some of the directors began expressing their belief that it was inappropriate to send black students to white churches. Corts said, "Some of the directors started to say, 'We're not sure if they're welcome.'" The animosity festered for months and finally came to a head when the African student was barred from delivering his sermon.

"This is absolutely unacceptable to the university," Corts said. So the H-Day program has been suspended while Samford officials reassess the school's relationship with the offending churches and restructures the H-Day program to ensure that it runs smoothly in the future. "We're going to make it an official university program," Corts said, with faculty overseeing the administration and placement of the students in churches.

By all counts Samford, Alabama's largest private university, with 4,485 students, has been attempting to make itself a model of tolerance and community involvement. The university enrolls students from 30 different
nations, and the divinity school's H-Day
program embraces students from a broad range of racial and ethnic
backgrounds. Samford's mission, according to the school's Web site, states that Samford students should expect to develop civic responsibility "as we exercise civility, tolerance, fairness, and compassion by respecting both individual convictions and cultural differences." And as a testament to such efforts, Samford was featured in Erlene B. Wilson's 1998 book "100 Best Colleges for African-American Students."

So, if Samford is not to blame, is this the problem of the Southern Baptist Convention, the organization that acts as Samford's religious umbrella group? In 1963 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement of "The Baptist Faith and Message" that reads in part, "Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth."

This sounded noble in 1963, but over the ensuing years, Southern Baptists
have continually struggled with the concept of brotherly love. The SBC is
the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 16 million members. About
a decade ago, hard-line conservatives won leadership of the denomination and
in subsequent years have consolidated control of the SBC's bureaucracy and
its seminaries. Year after year, Southern Baptists have staked out
increasingly right-wing political ground. In 1993, the SBC approved an
amendment stating that member congregations "which act to affirm, approve,
or endorse homosexual behavior" will be summarily disowned. In 1996, the SBC
passed a resolution to convert all Jews to Christianity, and in 1997
Southern Baptists called for a boycott of Walt Disney Co., saying that the
company condoned homosexuality. Then in 1998, in what was billed as a cure
for the breakdown of the American family, SBC delegates amended the "Baptist
Faith and Message" to include the claim that a wife should "submit herself
graciously" to the leadership of her husband -- giving feminists everywhere
a new horse to whip.

Implicit in all this showboaty amending and resolving was the message that
brotherly love is morally relative, and a message like that advances a tacit
tolerance for prejudice. Racism itself is as knotted up with the history of
Southern Baptists as it is with the history of Dixie. Just prior to the
Civil War, as Southern states were breaking from the Union to allow its
citizens to continue to own slaves, Southern Baptists broke away from
Baptists in the North to allow their missionaries to own slaves. After the
war and on through the civil rights struggle, as Southerners fought for
separation of the races, Southern Baptist ministers preached the glories of
segregation from the pulpit. For good-hearted Southern Baptists, the
struggle of the century has been this: how to reconcile the Bible's message
of unconditional love with the native prejudices that, for the last 150
years, have become part and parcel of living in the South.

A turnaround seemed to come in June 1995, when the SBC drafted a
resolution to "denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin," to
"apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating
individual and systematic racism" and to ask African-Americans for
forgiveness. Once again, the rhetoric sounded noble, but notice how this
anti-racism stance pales when compared with the SBC's hardcore indictment of
homosexuality. You don't see the SBC threatening to disown any church that
demonstrates bigotry. Clearly, on the SBC's map of social ills,
homosexuality outdistances racism by a country mile.

But make no mistake: Not all Southern Baptists are crazed right-wing bigots
with KKK hoods hanging in their closets. In fact, almost 7 percent of
the SBC's 40,000 congregations are made up predominantly of minorities. My
father, a white Southerner, served for 30 years as the pastor of a Southern
Baptist church in Virginia where the congregation was racially mixed, and
the mix was perfectly harmonious. Every Sunday I sat in pews alongside
African-American kids, and in summertime I perspired through marathon tent
revivals where blacks and whites stood side by side on the sawdust floor,
joined hands and voices and sang "I'll Fly Away."

But a few years later on, while I was in college in North Carolina, I
was visiting a Baptist church one Sunday when one of the members -- a
deacon, actually -- threatened a black man with a knife for "coming to the
white man's church." This was 1986. In the delicate interplay of the races
in the South, there will always be -- to use Dr. Corts' euphemistic words --
"pockets of concern."

Toward the end of my interview with Corts, I asked him if he was
surprised to hear that a Baptist church had compromised the Christian spirit
of love by rejecting the black divinity student. "Absolutely," he said. "The
Alabama Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention are on record
as saying that we need to grant opportunities to all races, and we don't
want to compromise that opportunity. We're all God's children."

In Sunday school, they teach you that God's love is colorblind. Some of God's children in Birmingham need to go back to school.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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