Rodney is the pastor of First African Baptist Church, a church that, at one time, was part of First Baptist. It’s an interesting story, and much depends on who gets to tell it.
I brought a copy of the church history with me—First Baptist Church, that is—where it says that back in 1838 pastor Jeremiah Bell Jeter was having trouble figuring out how to minister to his large, bi-racial congregation. He was convinced that “neither group in the church would achieve its maximum effectiveness under existing conditions.” Eventually he suggested that the white members build a new building just up the street, and leave the existing building to the “colored” members. And in 1841, that’s what happened. According to the church history it was a very amicable parting of the ways.
I asked Rodney if that’s the way they remembered it at First African.
He said the way he heard the story was that First Baptist had grown to nearly 3,000 members at that time—the first “megachurch”—but most of those were the slaves of white members. As Rodney talked I could almost picture them in a balcony that creaked and groaned under the strain of their enthusiastic worship as a much smaller number of white congregants sat on the main level, below, glancing upward nervously. When the 387 white members moved into their beautiful new building two blocks up the street there may have been an audible sigh of relief–on both sides.
I tend to romanticize that time when “we all worshiped together,” as if what Paul said in Galatians 3:28 was true even then, that in Christ Jesus there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” But Rodney helped me understand it may not have felt that way at all.
We ended up talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and how our two churches might work together on some big project. It was a very hopeful conversation, and Rodney has been in touch with me since, asking if some of our church leaders can meet to discuss it further. At some point the word reconciliation was used and I told Rodney that my favorite definition of that word was “to make friendly again.” And then there was an awkward silence as we realized that for our churches it might not be a matter of becoming friendly again, but becoming friendly for the first time ever, recognizing at last that in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free, but instead:
“You are all one.”