By Bob Smietana
Georgia Baptists have officially cut ties with a congregation accused of racism.
The news comes three days after leaders of the Mallary Baptist Association voted Tuesday night to expel Raleigh White Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.
At issue is the church’s treatment of an African-American church plant that shared its building. Raleigh White has been accused of barring African-Americans from attending a worship service in mid-March.
On Friday, the Georgia State Mission Board cut ties with the church as well.
“The Georgia Baptist Mission Board cannot and will not tolerate racism,” J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is incompatible with what we believe.”
The gospel is for everyone
The Mallary Baptist Association’s vote to expel Raleigh White came while thousands of evangelicals were meeting in Memphis to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speakers at the conference called for repentance and action to confront racism.
Hans Wunch, director of missions for the Mallary Baptist Association, said he’s already heard from other directors of missions who are facing similar conflicts over race. And the vote this week has attracted plenty of attention.
“I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of the response has been positive,” he said.
Concerns about Raleigh White Baptist have been brewing for some time.
The 75-year-old church is located in what had been a white neighborhood of Albany, Georgia, a city where about 70 percent of the population is African-American.
King led a desegregation campaign in the city during the 1960s.
The church had once been thriving, with 243 members on its rolls, according to the Southern Baptist Convention directory. But in recent years, the congregation dwindled to about 20 people as the neighborhood’s demographics changed.
About three years ago, the church decided to partner with New Seasons Church, an African-American church plant. That congregation has close ties to A.B,
Vines, pastor of New Seasons Baptist Church in Spring Valley, California, and a former president of the Southern Baptists’ National African American Fellowship.
At first, things went well. The older white congregation changed its service to an earlier time on Sundays in order to accommodate New Seasons.
New Seasons began to grow, baptizing about 160 people in the last three years, said Wunch. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two congregations began to deteriorate.
“It wasn’t one incident,” said Wunch. “It was multiple incidents over months.”
The conflict came to a head last month. The Raleigh White congregation planned a homecoming service on March 18. Members of New Seasons offered to cancel their services so the two churches could worship together.
Instead, they were told they were not welcome at the homecoming. In fact, said Wunch, they were initially banned from the premises until 2:30 p.m.
Wunch intervened to mediate. Members of Raleigh White then agreed that New Seasons could hold services around noon, according to the Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist Convention’s newspaper.
When people from New Seasons showed up at the church, they were turned away.
Some had come early because they had not heard of the time change.
“The basis for turning them away was that they were not the same skin color of the people inside the church,” Wunch said.
Even folks who wanted to come in the back door to prepare for the New Seasons service were told to stay out. One man showed up to meet with the New Seasons pastor in order to plan his wife’s funeral—and he also was turned away, said Wunch.
That’s not acceptable in any church, he said—especially not at a church in an African-American neighborhood.
“The people in that neighborhood ought to be able to look at a church and say, ‘This is a place where I can worship the Lord,’” said Wunch. “‘This is a place where I felt welcome.’ If that is not the case, something is horribly wrong.
“It’s a terrible blight on any denomination or any church if their community doesn’t feel welcome,” Wunch added.
Leaders from the association and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board have worked for about two years to mediate between the two congregations. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.
Churchgoers lukewarm about diversity
That’s not completely surprising, given that churches in America remain segregated. And many seem to be happy with the status quo.
A recent study from Lifeway Research found 81 percent of Protestant senior pastors say their church is made up predominantly of one racial group.
That’s down from 86 percent four years ago. And 93 percent of pastors say every church should try to achieve racial diversity.
But previous research found churchgoers are less interested in diversity.
A 2014 Lifeway Research study found two-thirds of American churchgoers felt their church had done enough to become diverse. Fewer than half (40 percent) said their church needed to become more diverse.
As the nation becomes more diverse, more churches will have to figure out how to reach people of different ethnic backgrounds, said Wunch, or they won’t be able to fulfill their mission.
“Churches have to ask, ‘What are we going to do to make sure the gospel gets to everybody?’” he said. “The gospel is either for everybody—or it’s for nobody.”
Wunch does see lessons coming out of the conflict in Albany.
One of those is about church buildings. Along with race, tensions over the use of the building and miscommunication also fueled the split between the two congregations.
He said more than 160 new people have been baptized by New Seasons since they moved into Raleigh White’s building. But unfortunately, he said, some people were more worried about wear and tear on the building than about saving souls.
And churches that share buildings have to make communication a priority. Sharing space is hard work, said Wunch, even without tensions over race.
“Aside from Jesus, communication has to be the most important thing,” he said.
Ironically, the homecoming service at Raleigh White was supposed to be an evangelistic event. Church members had hoped previous members might return that Sunday. And they also hoped to attract new people to the church.
“They were hopeful their church would be revitalized and that former members would come back,” Wunch said. “They probably won’t.”
The New Seasons church has found a temporary space to hold services this weekend. Wunch and church leaders are working on finding a permanent home for the congregation.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.