FORT WASHINGTON, Md.—It made national religious headlines when James Dixon expressed discontent about his congregation.
Dixon, president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, at the group’s gathering this past June, said, “I’m discontented with the church I’m at because I’m preaching to folk who look like me, and I’m not preparing for the place I’m going to.”
The African American pastor admitted that he wanted his church, El-Bethel Church in Fort Washington, Md., to look more like heaven, which Revelation 7:9 describes as “…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
“God wants us to bring about a unified body not only in the United States but in the world,” he said, stressing that racism in America must be addressed.
“Until we deal with that, the Kingdom of God is hindered,” he said.
“For years, we’ve only dealt with negotiation instead of reconciliation. When true reconciliation takes place, you don’t leave the person that you are reconciliatory with in the same state. There should be a change of heart—a move beyond the negotiation stage.”
In a similar way, BCM/D Executive Director David Lee began sensing that the opportunity to break down barriers between the races, especially between blacks and whites, was ripe.
“The idea actually arose amidst a discussion in a pastors’ network we host. One of the members suggested that we approach the subject of racial reconciliation, especially in light of the issues that have been in the news,” he explained.
Right away, he and Dixon planned for a retreat, inviting key pastors from both Anglo and African American churches, in equal numbers, to come together and discuss the issue.
What resulted astounded them.
He recounted how the pastors opened up and shared their true feelings about racism—“here are my fears, feelings, questions, and how I struggle”—and that true healing took place.
Bill Simpson, chief executive officer of Open Door Baltimore, said he perceived that the pastors in this group were peacemakers and problem-solvers.
“That was God’s handiwork,” Lee said. “The common denominator is we’re all Christian brothers. The environment was one where people could listen and express freely.”
Dan Crow, pastor of Covenant Church in Ellicott City, also noted, “There was a strong sense of empathy that grew as people shared (and a strong sense of vulnerability and humility as people were real with each other). It was humbly received, and it edified.”
Bernard Fuller, pastor of New Song Bible Christian Fellowship in Bowie, Md., noted that the success came down to relationships.
“We built relationships and heard each other’s stories. All of that is crucial before getting to action steps,” Fuller said.
Dixon agreed, “We created an environment for God there. We have to allow God to be the center of the situation.”
He added, “We have to ask ourselves, Are we doing the right thing? This is not an easy issue to deal with. But the bottom line is that I think we’re on to something here, and we can affect churches in the BCM/D and the world.”
Out of the meetings came a proposed mission statement, which reads:
“Our mission together is to create a new day of spiritual unity and cultural understanding between blacks and whites through the shared Christian values of respect, trust, and love; modeling these values individually and corporately by overcoming ignorance and fear, by confronting issues of poverty and power, and by recognizing, engaging and celebrating our difference.”
Dixon and Lee believe that Maryland/Delaware Baptists are in a unique position to address the issues and with success could become a model for other state conventions and SBC leaders in bringing a new day in race relations.
“We are beginning with the white/black challenge and hope to use what we learn to bring down other walls between other groups caused by prejudice and misunderstanding,” he said. “This is a God-sized task. Only God can bring about genuine reconciliation. We are taking small steps but sense His hand on what we are doing.”
Countering the fear some may feel about facing the issue, Dixon added, “We are dealing with people who claim to be Christians, and we have to deal with the issue on that level. This issue calls for a ‘Jehoshaphat’ thing here. We want to keep God at the center of it all. If He stays there, then we can face our fears.”
After hearing each other’s stories, pastors began to design strategies to move forward in racial reconciliation to affect change. They also met on other occasions to learn about poverty and justice issues.
Out of their strategizing developed the idea to form intentional partnerships between willing predominately African American churches and willing predominately Anglo churches.
After much prayerful discussion, the group suggested that the initiative could start with a pulpit/choir exchange on Sunday, January 16, 2011, the Sunday before the Martin Luther King’s birthday. Throughout Black History Month (February) and afterwards, churches could hold mutual prayer vigils and/or mission projects and then culminate with a joint celebration, second pulpit exchange or ministry project on June 12, 2011 (Pentecost Sunday).
“Our hope is that this becomes a movement. We’re hoping we can deal with the racism that exists and that we’ll start seeing the walls coming down,” said Lee.
“The black/white issue is an American issue,” said Bucas Sterling, pastor of Kettering Church, noting that the team must be careful to not be distracted from the biggest issue. “We are not ignoring the other cultural issues, but this is a big issue in America, in our churches, and in our associations. It’s big enough to focus on it now.”
“The other cultures are watching. How we deal with the black/white issue will lead to how to deal with other cultures. We are brave. Not everyone wants to deal with this issue,” Dixon agreed.
Asking for prayer, he added, “It is clear that this will not be an easy task. However, we know that with God all things are not easy but they are possible.”