ENCOUNTER TWO FIRST BAPTIST
CHURCHES IN ONE CITY
Two weeks after Ash Wednesday which begins Lent, First Baptist Church Black and the First Baptist Church White held a joint worship service at First Baptist Church Black. Following introductory comments by Rev. Hodari Hamilton, pastor of the host church, the Rev. J. Lindsay Saddler Jr., pastor of the First Baptist Church White delivered a Lenten worshp sermon. Before commenting further on that worship service I want to comment briefly on Lent and these two First Baptist Churches, located in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lent began this year on Ash Wednesday in February. It is commonly said to be for a period of forty weekdays from Ash Wendnesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Lent includes Holy Week, Good Friday and culminates with Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This year, including Sundays, Lent is forty-five days. The traditional purpose of Lent is the penitential preparation of the the believer through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial. Some churches emphasize fasting.
A brief statement on the histories of Charlotteville's First Baptist Church White and First Baptist Church Black. This is this writer's descriptions of these churches which he finds to be accurate and appropriate both from a historical and current perspectives. These churches are usually referred to, when is necessary to distinguish them, as First Baptist Church Park Street and First Baptist Church Main Street. In this discourse I will refer to them as First Baptist Church White and First Baptist Church Black.
First Baptist Church White was organized in 1831, when slavery was at a peak in Virginia. In 1620, when Virginia was a British Colony named Jamestown, the first Africans to be enslaved in North America were enslaved there. Two hundred and eleven years later First Baptist Church White came into existence at a time when Virginia had more slaves than any other state. For a generation African Americans were allowed to worship under slavery-segregated conditions, attending services in the balcony of the First Baptist Church White. This was the home - Charlottesville extended area - of former President Thomas Jefferson who was a slave owner. First Baptist Church White, a Southern Baptist Convention church, was a pioneer in many areas and like most white churches in the South a staunch supporter of slavery.
First Baptist Church Black was organized in 1864, in the middle of the Civil War. I have inquired as to whether the Civil War made it impossible for Blacks to attend services in the balcony of First Baptist Church White? I have not received an answer to this question. In 1864, Blacks gathered at the Delevan Hotel and organized the Delevan Baptist Church.
This was the first name of his church. Later, not certain of the date, the church was named the First Colored Baptist Church of Charlottesville. Subsequently, colored was dropped and the church became the First Baptist Church. Of course, it was understood by blacks and whites that there were a First Baptist Church for Whites and a First Baptist Church for Blacks. Unlike water fountains that had posted signs marked black or white there was no need for such signs regarding which church to attend. Both blacks and whites knew which church to attend.
Massive resistance to school integration encouraged by the "Southern Manifesto" that denounced the Supreme Court for its 1954 school desegregation decision was supported by white churches in Charlottesville. In 1958, Charlottesville closed some public schools rather than integrate them as the Courts had mandated. White churches open their doors to white students and housed segregation meant-to-be academies.
Martin Luther King, Jr., stated during that period that "The eleven o'clock hour on Snday is the most segregated hour of the week." Since the 1970s churches in the South have been slow to integrate, nevertheless, progress has been made in that regard even though it has not been equal to that made by the entertainment and sports industries. In some areas of the country even today, it remains that "Guess whose coming to my church?" elicits the same disdain as "Guess whose coming to dinner?" from church members. I recall attended one such white church in a rural area of Virginia where this mentality was in evidence. It was like, "You have the audacity to come to our church!"
Since taking up residence in Charlottsville, after living in Montgomery, Alabama during the decade of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which I helped to lead, where there was not any integration in churches, and later living for more than thirty years in California where some churches were highly integrated, I have worshiped at First Baptist Church White and First Baptist Church Black more than a dozen times. Both of these churches have a few attendees of the opposite race, including one, two or three members in their choirs. Both churches are open to integration and probably would like to see more of it taking place. However, the legacy of segregation is a present fact, not just a fantasy, that makes it difficult to acomplish integration in churches. However, there are some churches across the South where integration has and is advancing at an appreciable level as can be seen when viewing on TV Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church and T. J. Jakes' Potter House, both located in Texas. While there are exceptions it is true that there are more than a few integrated congregations in the South. The issue is not altogether whether a congregation is black or white, but why is that true? The teachings of Christianity call for unity. Let me state that the white Covenant Church, Rev. Harold Bare, pastor, located in Charlottesville is an integrated church. I am not aware of an African American Church in Charlottesville that is similarly integrated. I am aware that it is more likely that Blacks will attend white churches than it is that Whites will attend black churches. It is a matter of trust which has many ingredients that include guilt for Whites and yearning for equality for Blacks.
Now, let me return to the Lent Service of the two First Baptist churches that met two weeks after Ash Wednesday. Yes, two "first" Baptist churches; not a first, second or third Baptist church.
During this Lenten worship service no mention was made of the history of these churches, except at the beginning of the service when the pastor of the host church said something to the effect that these two churches have a long history in the city of Charlottesville. Certainly, nothing was said that referred to race or the relationship of these churches during the last 181 years for First Baptist Church White and 148 years for First Baptist Church Black.
The First Baptist Church White choir and band were composed of at least fifty people. The congregation was about equally divided between whites and blacks. I do not recall an earlier time having seen this racial balance during a worship service in Charlottesville. The choir and band rendered beautiful music that lifted the spirits of attendees and brought the audience to their feet as they engaged in hand-clapping, foot-tapping and rocking. I had heard that choir and band perform before in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church White but it seemed to me that they sang and played more powerfully at First Baptist Church Black. Maybe we all would be better if we seized the opportunites to reach out and experience something different.
Rev. Saddle, Jr., delivered an inspiring and challenging Lenten mesasge that focused on asccepting the gospel that consists of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus; introspection, i.e., self-examination with a desire to improve; surrender to Jesus, and enjoyment. He emphasized that Lent is not just about sacrifice but about living a full and joyous life. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full."
I left that service inspired and with an awareness that what I had experienced during that worship service was not nearly as common as it should be in this second decade of the third millennium and wondering how to make race matter less and love matter more.
Unfortunately, the church has not been at the forefront of promoting racial diversity and unity. Jesus' desire is "That they all may be one." I often think about the people who fought and those who died that First Baptist Church White and First Baptist Church Black in Charlottesville could experience a joint Lenten worship service saturated with beauty and without fear or danger. And I cannot help but to think about how the Church has lagged behind many other institutions in making that possible. It's easy to see that the entertainment and sports industries deserve more credit for the progress made in promoting racial justic than the Church. Indeed, that is a sad commentary, especially since it is the Church that is portrayed as being the bastion of morality. If that is true, this is an indictment of the Church. The Church is challenged to look outside of herself for examples of moral assertiveness in the pursuit of racial justice.
Hopefully, by a leap of faith, body-religion will become avant-garde in addessing issues and conditions that demand justice. There is no lack of opportunity for those who desire to demonstrate what it truly means to be Christian. The resounding and clarion call is: "The harvest is great but the laborers are (too) few."
Copyright 2012 by Uriah J. Fields
(Please click on "Mutuality World Community Church" on this web site and read an array of other writings by Uriah J. Fields.)