Robert was a normal middle school boy. He was a jokester and a little hyper, and he rarely thought through the consequences before he acted. I met him when I was a student minister and welcomed him into our student group with open arms. It was an honor to see him confess Christ as Lord and desire to be baptized.
The next week in the deacons meeting, our pastor let the deacons know about Robert, and then he said something surprising: “I realize that some people in this church may have a problem with Robert being baptized. His baptism is not up for question. I want to know how you are going to respond to people when they talk to you.”
This was odd. We had baptized wild-eyed middle school boys all throughout our 200-year history as a South Carolina Baptist church. What was the big deal?
I may have left out one minor detail: Robert was African-American.
For the next few moments, I realized why our pastor was being proactive in his leadership. A man in his 60s was the first to speak up and said that he was uneasy about it, but the time had come. Some in their 40s expressed their excitement that we were moving forward as a congregation. The few in the room in their 20s said, “Why are we even having this discussion?” We left that meeting unified.
With each passing generation, blatant racism seems to diminish, and we move more toward unity and closer to a better reflection of the kingdom. We’ve come a long way as Southern Baptists from our stained racist past, but we have a long way to go. Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated time in America. The one institution that should have been the pioneer in the integration movement — the church — is finally at the frontier.
It’s not enough for us to open our doors and simply welcome those of another skin or culture into our church. Annual pulpit exchanges aren’t going to get the job done. We must be intentional in personally putting ourselves in proximity with those not like us and building authentic relationships. Brian Lorrits, who will be our featured speaker at IMPACT on Feb. 21, says, “Proximity breeds empathy, but distance leads to suspicion.”
Sunday mornings will not change until the dinner table changes. When was the last time you had a meal with someone who was of a different race?
There are 1.4 million African-American people in our state, and about 2,000 of them, at most, are in our South Carolina Baptist churches. If we are serious about saturating every life with the hope of the gospel, we must be intentional about engaging them and partnering with churches from other denominations that are reaching them.
Robert was the first of many African-American teenagers baptized at our church. On that Sunday, there was a standing ovation.
The IMPACT conference is Thursday, Feb. 21, at Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia. Details, including instructions on how to register, can be found at www.scbaptist.org/impact.