Just a few days ago in Baton Rouge, a new chapter was written in the history of black and white churches.
Three dozen pastors and pastoral students, both black and white, male and female, from two different Baptist denominations met for the first Expository Preaching Conference at New Hope Baptist Church.
The one-day conference was hosted by the Southeast African-American Fellowship of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge in cooperation with the Fourth District of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention.
BAGBR includes 100 Baton Rouge area Louisiana (Southern) Baptist Convention churches and ministries that are predominantly white, although there are 16 minority churches in its membership. The Fourth District is a group of about 200 predominantly black National Baptist churches in the six-parish area and is part of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
The conference, which featured four white Southern Baptist and four black National Baptist pastor-teachers, was organized by the Rev. Steve Beckham, pastor of Church of Life Fellowship Baptist Church, a predominantly black Southern Baptist/BAGBR church.
“This (conference) not only breaks down racial divides, but it also breaks down denominational divides in our faith,” Beckham said. “There needs to be cohesiveness amongst all Baptists, not just Baptists but religious organizations, period. We preach one God, one faith, one baptism, and if we’re preaching the same message we ought to be able to sit at the same table.”
Beckham said the conference was so well received they are planning to make it an annual event and may even expand it to twice a year.
The Rev. Lee T. Wesley is a longtime local leader in closing the racial divide between churches and is pastor of two churches — Community Bible Baptist, a Southern Baptist/BAGBR church in Baton Rouge, and Plymouth Rock Baptist in Plaquemine, a National Baptist church. He is the founder of Together Baton Rouge and opened the Nov. 1 conference with a short sermon.
“I see this (conference) as historical, and I see it as the beginning of something really great that is going to bring God’s people back together,” Wesley said in a later phone interview. “I told them, ‘There is but one church.’ Christ said, ‘I have many sheep of many folds but they are one flock.’ We are all in the same flock.”
“The goal of the Great Commission is to go into the world and preach the Gospel not as black Baptists or white Baptists,” Wesley said. “The goal is for believers, for Christians, to come together in order to spread the Gospel.”
The Rev. Dr. Tommy Middleton is executive director of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge and until three years ago was the longtime pastor of Woodlawn (Southern) Baptist Church.
“I don’t think anything like this has happened before,” said Middleton. “Multicultural expansion is a Southern Baptist goal, and we are working to make our churches look like what our country and our city looks like.”
The consensus among pastors of both denominations and races contacted for this story agreed that this preaching conference could be ranked second in historic importance to an unprecedented 2009 agreement forged between the Southern Baptist’s New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with the National Baptist’s Fourth District to provide seminary extension courses at some National Baptist churches in Baton Rouge.
The Rev. Leo D. Cyrus Sr. is one of the Baton Rouge area’s most senior African-American pastors. He shepherds both New Hope and Second Baptist churches and was recently installed as president of the Greater Louisiana Baptist Convention, a group also affiliated with the National Baptist Convention USA, where he also serves as a vice president.
“We are working together, we are studying together and trying to understand each other,” Cyrus said. “We are all Christians and we should be all brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The Rev. Huey Moak served at Foster Road (Southern) Baptist Church from 1973 until 2010. He is interim pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church in Central, and presented “Deepening Devotion and Prayer Life” at the conference.
“From my perspective there is a growing Christian brother-sister relationship between the white Southern Baptists and the National Baptists,” Moak said. “We respect each other, and we work together for the kingdom of God.”
The Rev. Larry Hood, a member of Cyrus’s Second Baptist Church, and also a member of BAGBR’s African-American Fellowship, is pastor of a year-old church plant, Logos and Life Bible Church in Plaquemine. “Southern Baptists have always had an open-door policy for training — but this is the first time there has been a collaboration between Southern Baptists and National Baptists,” Hood said. “We had (both) National Baptist and Southern Baptist teachers, and it was held at a National Baptist church.”
The conference was designed, Hood said, to fill an educational gap for many of the pastors of both conventions who are bivocational, meaning they work at another regular job besides being a pastor.
The “expository” intent of the conference, several pastors said, was to reinforce systematic or methodical teaching from the Bible as opposed to what has become in many modern churches “application” or “feel good” sermon topics that rely on illustrations or examples from current events.
The Rev. George H. Guillory Jr., senior pastor of Glen Oaks Baptist Church, is moderator of BAGBR and also a leader in Together Baton Rouge.
“This has never happened before,” Guillory said. “There is a more open, willing partnership between the National Baptists and Southern Baptists. You’ll see this relationship grow, and there will be more collaboration.”
“The world needs to see us being more together than apart. They need to know that Christianity is more than a bunch of little groups and denominations,” Guillory said. “If we believe in Jesus Christ we need to have some things that we can agree on and work together on. We need to make that the headline.”