Originally created 08/24/96

Churches are forging racial unity



The place where you learn to "love your neighbor" is the same place where you can still find segregation, 35 years after it was prohibited.

But many Augusta pastors - both black and white - say this is changing. It is of particular interest as Southern Baptists and others recently have publicly repented their sins of racism and vowed to promote racial equality in their churches.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant church, denounced racism and the denomination's failure to support the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

The SBC, whose first black members were slaves of its founders in Augusta, recently has been adding about 150 predominately black membership churches to the convention each year. Supporters of slavery founded the church in 1845, after Baptists in the North balked at appointing a Georgia slaveholder a missionary.

"My job is to call Southern Baptists to an understanding that racism is sin, and to propagate it in the name of the Gospel is blasphemy," Richard Land, head of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Associated Press.

In Augusta, many Southern Baptist pastors say racial barriers are starting to break down.

"Certainly it's a shame that we've been divided for so long," said Rev. Stephen Murell of National Hills Baptist Church. "I've been here nine years and I've noticed that recently there's been a definite movement among Augusta pastors, particularly black pastors, to become more unified as Southern Baptists. The Augusta Baptist Association is getting more black churches as members. We've had one since I've been here and now we have two or three seeking membership."

The Rev. Charles Dent, pastor at Crawford Baptist Church, is one of those new black members. The Rev. Dent said membership in the association has a lot to do with the Southern Baptist Convention's public denouncement of racism and repentance of sins.

"Blacks can't be afraid to be pioneers; you can't be afraid to be intimidated by people," he said. "The truth is, (before joining the association) I was so ignorant of the Southern Baptist Convention and their message. The Southern Baptists have taken the first step, and it's up to others to follow."

GraceWay Church, a predominately white Baptist church, has joint services with Good Hope Baptist Church, a predominately black church.

"We have people of every walk here," said the Rev. Gene Swinson, pastor of GraceWay. "We don't have a problem.

"I was pastor of a church in Savannah that was open to anyone, but back in that day, in the '80s, that was not the popular way to take - to be open to everyone."

The Rev. Charles Smith of Mount Elim Baptist Church, a predominately black church, said the statement by the Southern Baptists was a positive sign, but eliminating racism is the responsibility of the individual pastors.

"We black pastors, particularly black Baptist pastors, believe historically thatwe should be more active socially," he said. "If (racism) is going to get better, it will through the church. The church is an instrument for eliminating racism, but we shouldn't have a staged congregation with so many whites and so many blacks. If we get the Christian part right - the love part right - being together as whites and blacks will become more natural, instead of staged or planned."

Mount Elim has a 5-year-old exchange program with another church, The Church of the Good Shepherd. Two or three times a year, the churches, Mount Elim, a predominately black Baptist church, and Good Shepherd, a predominately white, Episcopal church, switch ministers. The Rev. Smith says the program is not about the different faiths or the different races, but about being Christian.

"We said from the beginning that our purpose is not to change the congregations or even to integrate them, but to see black and white Christians working together," he said of his efforts with the Rev. Robert D. Fain at Good Shepherd. "Hopefully, if (the congregations) get to know each other, the race part will come together.

The Rev. Dent said that the issue for churches today is not racism as much as it is sin.

"Hating anyone is sin, and I think a lot of people are starting to realize that. We shouldn't hate what God created. The key is to recognize that it is a sin and not just racism. Call it a sin. We have to repent our sin, and pastors are addressing sin now more than before and that's what's making the difference, that's what's bringing whites and blacks together."

The Rev. Swinson said that integrating congregations is just the start. Listening to and spending time with people of other races is the key, he said.

"The church seems to be afraid today to get its hands dirty. You can't put a fence around the gospel. It's kind of hard to obey the word of God and exclude anybody," the Rev. Swinson said. "Jesus spent more time with prostitutes, tax collectors and half-breeds than he did with religious folks."

Sherrill Dunn, associate pastor at Curtis Baptist and moderator of the Augusta Baptist Association, said he has become close to a black family that attends his Bible class. Although his church only has a "sprinkling of blacks" in its congregation, he said that he senses racial barriers disintegrating, especially with the recent activity among black pastors to join the Augusta Baptist Association.

"We are coming together as the people of God, and breaking down racial barriers," the Rev. Dunn said. "Though we can't go back and do anything, we can repent and go forward. I guess you have to do things when it's timely. Socially, it has to be acceptable to the black community as well as the white community. Now is the time to deal with it."

The Rev. Dent and the Rev. Swinson agreed that racism was a two-way street, and that for whites and blacks to grow together culturally, both races have to deal with their sins.

"It's important to more than just whites and blacks," said the Rev. Dent. "Asians, Hispanics and Indians will be part of it, too. The church is going to be like a quilt. God is tearing down barriers in our life.

"It's just like that quote by Jonathan Swift, `we have enough religion just to hate, and not enough religion to love. (Racism) is a contemporary issue that has to be dealt with in church."