A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

_______________________
Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

Emily the Episcopalian

I heard a story recently about a woman from another denomination who was visiting a Baptist church in the South.  Let’s call her Emily the Episcopalian.  She loved the church and wanted to join, but then she had a talk with the pastor.  What follows is a close approximation of that conversation. 

—————————————–

Pastor, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time.  I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the church!  I’ve been visiting for about three months now and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from your congregation.  I love the music and the message of your worship services.  I don’t think I’ve ever left here without feeling blessed by the experience.  I’ve even visited a Sunday school class where people did everything they could to make me feel at home.  So, I think I’m ready to join, and I just want to know how I should go about that.

Well, that’s wonderful, Emily!  And when it comes to joining, nothing could be easier.  If you’ll just come forward at the end of any worship service, when I give the invitation, I can introduce you to the congregation, they’ll lift their hands to “vote you in,” and then, as soon as possible, we can schedule your baptism. 

My baptism?

Right.   

But I’ve already been baptized.

Have you?

Yes.  When I was a baby.

Oh, right.  You grew up Episcopalian.  In the Baptist tradition we don’t really think of that as baptism.  The Greek word for baptize means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  That’s the way they did it in the New Testament and that’s the way we do it.  We baptize believers by immersion.  So, (smiling) let’s get that on the schedule as soon as possible.  You are a believer, aren’t you Emily?  

Of course.  I’ve been a believer for…thirty years. 

Great, then I’ll look forward to welcoming you whenever you choose to come down the aisle.

Um, Pastor?

Yes?

Are you telling me my baptism doesn’t count?

No, not at all, Emily!  I’m sure it was very meaningful for your parents and for the church.  But, see, you didn’t choose to be baptized, and in the Baptist tradition we think you need to make up your own mind about Jesus.

But I did make up my own mind about Jesus.  I was confirmed when I was twelve.  I stood before the church and claimed my baptism, professing my faith in Jesus as Lord.  Nobody made me do that.

That’s wonderful, Emily.  It really is.  And you’ll have a chance to profess your faith again when you are baptized.  That’s the way we do it here: you stand in the baptistry and I ask you if you want to follow Jesus.  You say “Yes” and then I dip you down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t mean to argue, Pastor, but that sounds like what you do when you become a Christian, and I’m not becoming a Christian.  I’ve been a Christian for years.  It sounds as if you’re saying that doesn’t count either.

No, no!  That’s not what I’m saying at all!  Of course you’re a Christian.  There’s no question about that.  But if you want to be a member of a Baptist church you need to be baptized in the Baptist way. 

Why?

What do you mean, why?

Why doesn’t my baptism count?  Why doesn’t my Christian experience count?  I’m not moving from one religion to another, just from one church to another.  Why can’t I just transfer my membership?

That’s just not the way we do it, Emily.  We place a high value on believer’s baptism.  It’s the biblical way, and if you’re not willing to be baptized in the biblical way, well….

Wait a minute.  I’m confused.  I became a Christian in the Episcopal church.  Now I want to join a Baptist church.  But it sounds like you’re telling me I have to become a Christian all over again, in the Baptist way.  Not only that, you’re telling me the Baptist way is the “biblical” way, as if the Episcopal way were not.  I came into this meeting eager to join your church, but in the last few minutes you’ve told me my baptism doesn’t count, that I’m not a real Christian, and that my tradition is “unbliblical.”

No, no!  I’m not saying that at all! 

Well, that’s how it sounds to me (she gets up to go).  Thank you for your time, Pastor.  I’ll have to think about this.  But, honestly?  I’m not nearly as excited as I was about joining.  In fact (she pauses), I think I just made up my mind.

—————————————-

This is what happens when real people encounter a membership requirement that treats their previous Christian experience as if it were no experience at all.  I post this example because it is so similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with people from other denominations when I explain to them the current membership requirement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  They can’t understand why their Christianity isn’t “good enough,” or why their baptism “doesn’t count.”  Although I assure them that it’s not like that at all, many of them decide not to return. 

I’m still hoping that we can come to that place where we welcome committed Christians from other denominations without asking them to start all over again.  I think there is a way to honor their baptism, honor their previous Christian experience, and then “immerse” them in the Baptist tradition.  Who knows what kind of Baptist Emily might become if we simply welcomed her with open arms, as if she were—in fact—our sister in Christ?

Because—in fact—she is.