A little context goes a long way

A Mississippi church's refusal to allow a black couple to marry in its sanctuary has made national headlines, from ABC News to Reuters.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper known for its strong reporting on civil rights issues, has provided extensive coverage.

But it was an Associated Press report on the rejected wedding ceremony that caught my attention this week. The top of the story:

CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — Townspeople prayed for racial reconciliation Monday, but the black man whose wedding was rejected by a predominantly white Southern Baptist church in this small Mississippi town said he wasn't ready to let racism be swept under the rug.

"Prayer works, but only if you want it to work, only if you want it to work in your heart" said Charles Wilson, the groom. "There are some that won't change and I accept that. But I won't stop talking about it. We're still hurt."

As 150 residents sweltered in a park beside a railroad track, their song of praise was drowned out by a southbound Canadian National freight train. The scene was today's South writ small, a place where a lot of things have changed but where the pain of the old hurts can still flare anew.

Wilson and his bride Te'Andrea were to be married at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs on July 21. But after their rehearsal two nights before, the church's pastor sought to move the service, saying some congregants didn't want two black people to get married in the orange-brick sanctuary.

After reading the opening paragraphs, I was curious to see if AP would (a) provide any background on the Southern Baptist Convention electing its first black president just weeks ago and (b) go to the trouble of explaining the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist congregations.

Both details are pretty crucial to a national news report such as this, don't you think?

AP passed the test on both counts, I am pleased to report.

From the story:

Southern Baptist leaders called Monday for the church to reject racism. Baptist churches are autonomous, so they want the congregation to chart its own course.

Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention board, said the organization was praying for the church and is ready to help. William Perkins, a spokesman for the group, said the church has not contacted state officials.

"Mississippi Baptists both reject racial discrimination and at the same time respect the autonomy of our local churches to deal with difficulties and disagreements under the lordship of Jesus," Futral said in a statement.

The reference to Southern Baptist leaders followed by the quote from the Mississippi Baptist official made me wonder if the reporter was confusing the national leadership with the state association.

But a national spokesman is quoted as the report proceeds:

After being slow to reach out across racial lines, Southern Baptists have made increasing efforts in that direction in the past two decades. Nationwide, about 19 percent of 45,000 Southern Baptist churches are majority-minority, including 3,500 that are majority black.

Earlier this year, the convention elected its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. At the same meeting, delegates voted to give churches the option of calling themselves Great Commission Baptist churches, for those who wish to break free of the baggage of the Southern Baptist name and reach more followers.

"We are all saddened when any sin, including the sin of racism, rears its head," said Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Sing Oldham. "Part of our gospel is that we are being redeemed. We are flawed, failed creatures and redemption is a process."

Nice job by AP of providing relevant background and context in a relatively short daily news report.

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