- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It might seem odd for black Americans to join a faith that once supported slavery, but black pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention say much has changed since the issue split Baptists in America nearly 200 years ago.”Yesterday and today, they are different days,” said the Rev. Robert Anderson, outgoing president of the African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Md. “The convention as a whole has come a long way, obviously, from the days of slavery and Jim Crow. We have a lot more African-Americans involved in the convention than ever before.”

Mr. Anderson will be among several blacks attending the annual two-day meeting of the convention beginning today in Nashville. About 3,000 predominantly black churches are affiliated with the convention of about 16.2 million members.

It is a far cry from the denomination’s early years, when such incorporation was unthinkable.

During the 1830s, tensions between Baptists in the North and South began to mount, mainly over slavery.

Slavery was a major economic resource in the South and was embraced by Baptists there. But Baptists in the North opposed the practice, contending that God doesn’t condone treating one race superior to the other.

The bickering came to a head in May 1845, when Baptists in the South met and organized the Southern Baptist Convention.

Since then, Mr. Anderson said, Southern Baptists have taken steps to repair their tarnished past. One of the biggest moves came 10 years ago, when the convention issued a resolution apologizing for slavery.

In addition, the denomination has 23 ethnic fellowships, of which the black group is among the largest.

Richard Harris, vice president of church planting for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the fellowship groups are an “integral part of our convention.”

“They’re Southern Baptists to the core,” Mr. Harris said. “They just want to fellowship together because of their culture and history.”

Mr. Anderson, who will usher in a new fellowship president at this year’s convention, agreed.

“We wanted to share what we have in common as an ethnic body of people,” he said.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, said he still finds it unusual that blacks in particular would support a denomination that strongly backs President Bush, who received less than 10 percent of the black vote in last year’s election.

“The continued presence of African-American churches in the Southern Baptist Convention is odd given the denomination’s hard-wiring to the far right of the Republican Party,” Mr. Parham said.

But the Rev. E.W. McCall Sr., pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in La Puente, Calif., said many of the convention’s black members are Republicans who are frustrated with the Democratic Party’s support of abortion and homosexuality.

“All those are liberal tendencies that go against the grain of what the Bible stands for,” said Mr. McCall, a former president of the African American Fellowship.

He also said Southern Baptists don’t have the pro-slave mentality they had centuries ago.

“You can’t go on past history,” Mr. McCall said. “We’re living in the 21st century now. It’s not a ‘they’ thing, it’s ‘us.’”

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