Southern Baptists gain black churches

Denomination aims its outreach at immigrants and other minorities

April 30, 2000|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Knight Ridder/Tribune

PHILADELPHIA -- Most people picture the typical Southern Baptist church as being, first off, in the South, perhaps at the intersection of two roads named after trees in a quiet neighborhood of freshly mowed lawns and conservative Caucasians.

Most probably wouldn't picture something like the Service Baptist Church, located in a storefront on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

But Service is one of a rapidly growing number of black churches to affiliate with the Southern Baptists -- a stunning irony given the church's history.

It has been 155 years since the Southern Baptist Church was formed in Georgia by rural whites who, insisting the church could not deny them the right to own slaves, split from the Northern Baptists.

It has been fewer than 50 years since blacks were routinely turned away from many Southern Baptist churches in the Deep South.

And it has been only five years since the Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution of repentance, apologizing for "condoning and/or perpetrating" racism.

Despite all that, the Southern Baptist Convention -- already the nation's largest Protestant congregation with nearly 16 million members -- is managing to add blacks and other minorities to its rolls, and in some cities at an astonishing rate.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, since 1984, the number of predominantly African-American churches affiliated with the Southern Baptists has grown tenfold, from eight to 80.

Partly to improve their image and partly because it's where the potential for growth is, Southern Baptists are "pouring a tremendous amount of money" into drawing immigrant and minority members, said the Rev. David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

"There are simply not enough white rural people to sustain the numbers and the growth for Southern Baptists," Key said. "They would not grow without ethnic populations -- blacks, Asians, Hispanics."

Since 1998, the Southern Baptists have been targeting two large cities a year -- Philadelphia is designated to be one of them in 2002, a Southern Baptist Convention spokesman said -- and flooding them with door-to-door missionaries, billboard advertising and block parties as part of what it calls its Strategic Focus Cities Initiative.

Even before that, it was making significant inroads in urban areas.

In the Philadelphia area, there were 30 Southern Baptist churches in 1983, and 15 of them were predominantly white. Today, according to the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association, there are 120. Of those, 15 are predominantly white, 25 are foreign-language speaking, and 80 are predominantly African-American.

'A very significant increase'

"That is a very significant increase, especially when you look at Southern Baptists historically," said the Rev. Vernal E. Sims Sr., president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

Erie Avenue Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation for 20 years, became Southern Baptist about three years ago, the Rev. Clarence Hester said. Since then, he said, it has been able to do more, both within the church and for the outside community.

He said the Convention had helped finance a church food drive; supplied, for the first time ever, enough Bibles for everyone in the 82-member congregation; and provided Sunday school materials. In addition, church leaders have access to training programs and conferences, emergency funds, benefits packages, and pension plans.

In return, the Convention expects the church to contribute to the central programs and missions, Hester said, "but it's just give what you can, and they understand if you have nothing to give."

Hester said there were no objections in the congregation, on historical grounds or otherwise, to affiliating with the Southern Baptists.

"It's not that we have gone out seeking existing black churches," said the Rev. Frank Miller, director of missions for the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association, an organization of Southern Baptist churches.

"A good number of African- American churches are simply nonaffiliated, and they've been looking at who to fellowship with, who to get materials from, and many have chosen Southern Baptist.

"It really wasn't by design," added Miller, who was sent by the church to Philadelphia in 1984.

He declined to provide a list of the area Southern Baptist churches, saying the churches "have asked me not to do that sort of thing."

"Philadelphia has long experienced a lot of independent churches and, as times goes by, more and more are feeling a need for connectedness both in terms of fellowship and shared resources," said David Garnett, vice president of the Center for Urban Theological Studies, a Hunting Park ministry center.

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