c. 2005 Religion News Service
NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ For 37 years, the Rev. Ralph Johnson has met with fellow members of his National Baptist Convention, USA. There are several African-American Baptist denominations, representing more than 15 million believers, but for the most part, they have all kept to themselves.
On Wednesday (Jan. 26), things were different. Johnson and members of three other black Baptist denominations gathered for a historic four-day meeting designed to find common ground on social issues. The gathering was officially nonpartisan, but if Baptists take the recommendations of speakers to oppose the Iraq war and support programs for the poor _ to cite just two examples _ it could have political ramifications.
For Johnson, however, there was value in just coming together under the same roof.
“I’m sure a lot of persons have died before this could come about,” said Johnson, pastor of a Johnstown, Pa., church, as he took a short break between morning sessions addressing health and education.
The four denominations severed ties decades ago over a variety of issues, including disputes over leadership, civil rights and a publishing house. But church leaders have high hopes for future unity, estimating that about 10,000 people will attend at least part of the four-day gathering.
“One of the affirmations of this gathering, to me, is that the things that divided us were not things that were really central to who we are as bodies in Christ,” said the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA.
The meeting had members of Shaw’s denomination joining others from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America and National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.
At Wednesday’s sessions, speakers urged Baptists to use their collective voice to change society and speak to political leaders on the local and national level.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, decried the everyday circumstance of “children going to drug houses because they’re always open instead of schoolhouses and church houses that are too often closed.”
She said black churches can make a difference and urged meeting attendees to be ready with questions for their congressional representatives when they return home in February during a Capitol Hill recess.
“I hope today that this powerful network of black Baptists coming together will answer God’s call to repent and to provide justice for the children and the poor,” Edelman said.
Community organizations sought to make the most of the gathering of thousands of black Baptists, with Edelman’s Washington-based group providing fliers about an upcoming forum on child advocacy and the NAACP offering membership applications to meeting participants.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition told reporters Wednesday that he hopes participants and other black Baptists will join his efforts to oppose the Iraq war and to push programs for improved jobs and health care.
“It’s time to go back to the streets to complete Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s agenda,” said Jackson, who says he is affiliated with all four of the religious bodies.
As they consider unity _ but not merger _ representatives of the denominations see a need to move beyond the issues that prompted them to form separate organizations since the early 1900s.
“The problems that we face as a people are not peculiar to some of us,” said the Rev. Major L. Jemison, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, in an interview. “They are the same for all of us. A collective voice is better than an individual voice.”
The meeting attracted the attendance and the interest of observers from outside the gathered denominations.
Bishop George McKinney, a member of the general board of the Church of God in Christ, has written about the need for black churches to come together to address the problems facing African-Americans, such as fatherlessness, violence and drug abuse.
He said he hopes the gathering will help achieve that goal.
“I think there’s generally an awareness that we’re in a serious crisis and the crisis demands bold, courageous action,” McKinney said in an interview. He said such action has begun on the local level in cities like San Diego, where his St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ has teamed up with other local black churches to provide after-school learning centers where youth can be tutored in math and reading.
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The joint meeting was preceded by other, smaller attempts to build reconciliation between some of the groups. For example, Jemison joined Shaw at the podium of a National Baptist Convention, USA meeting in 2002. Denominational leaders also have spoken at one another’s board meetings and state conventions.
The Rev. Henry Lyons, a former president of Shaw’s denomination who served highly publicized prison time for grand theft and fraud, recalled his work in the 1990s with Revelation Corporation, a short-lived business effort that included several of the Baptist denominations and other groups.
“All the time, we had this in mind,” said Lyons in an interview. He described the Nashville gathering as a “bridge-building meeting.”
The Rev. Clarence Newsome, president of Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, N.C., called the meeting “a happening.” He said leaders are determined to accomplish new strategies for addressing some of the most serious problems facing African-Americans.
“Black Baptists will point to this as an ultra-high watermark in the life of organized religion among black Baptists,” said Newsome, former dean of Howard University Divinity School in Washington.
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