Black church unites with white church: A symbolic story about modern 'Baptist' life

Veterans on the religion beat know that there are Baptists, Baptists, Baptists and then there are other kinds of Baptists.

There are Southern Baptists, American Baptists, several kinds of National Baptists (not to be confused with the Progressive National Baptists), Free Will Baptists, Reformed (Calvinist) Baptists, various Conservative Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Cooperative Baptists and legions of others. Then, of course, there a kazillion totally independent Baptist congregations with no ties that bind them to anyone.

So the Rev. Pat Robertson, last time I checked, is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Bill Moyers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a Baptist, as is the Rev. Billy Graham. Former President Bill Clinton remains a Baptist and the same is true for former President Jimmy Carter, although he famously dropped his Southern Baptist ties.

What's my point? When journalists write about Baptists it helps to provide a bit of context. Take, for example, the very interesting Huffington Post story the other day that -- in the midst of #Ferguson shock waves -- ran under this headline: "Two Florida Churches Merge With Hope Of Bridging A Racial Divide." Here's the top of the report:

Two Florida churches are soon expected to undergo a merger that pastors hope will help send a message on race relations throughout the state -- and beyond.
On Jan. 4, 2015, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville -- a predominantly black church -- will take over Ridgewood Baptist Church in Orange Park. Ridgewood's congregation is mostly white.
The latter has struggled financially and Shiloh Pastor H.B Charles Jr., who is black, along with Ridgewood Pastor Michael Clifford, who is white, decided that a union would be the best course of action.

This union is especially symbolic because of the location of these churches, including the 8,000-member Shiloh flock. The story does an excellent job of making that clear:

Among the trials the churches could face are potentially challenging reactions from residents in a state that has become notorious for being the site of racially charged cases.
Shiloh is in the same city where black teenager Jordan Davis was killed by a white, 47-year-old Florida man over loud music in November 2012. The shooter was recently charged with first-degree murder.
It is also not too far from Sanford, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, in what became one of America's most widely discussed cases about race.

The new congregation will also be multi-racial in terms of leadership, readers learn, with Charles being the leader in the pulpit and Clifford leading various kinds of Christian education programs.

I read the story and then I read it again, realizing that I had no idea what kind of Baptists the Post team was talking about.

That matters, in a pluralistic state like Florida, where you can find every kind of Baptist under the sun.

I'll admit that -- in terms of stereotypes -- I assumed this was a fading, liberal Baptist congregation (perhaps of the northern, American Baptist bloodline) that was merging with a large historically black congregation, perhaps from of Progressive Baptist linage. That's an interesting story, but not very surprising.

Then again, I thought, what if this was small Southern Baptist church -- the largest Protestant flock in America -- that was merging with a congregation from a historically black convention? It that was the case, the Post team really needed to let us know because that would be amazing.

As it turned out, with a little digging I discovered that BOTH OF THESE CHURCHES are part of the historically white SBC, which did, of course, elect its first African-American president in 2012. The Southern Baptist Convention is rapidly gaining Latino, black, Asian and multiracial churches.

In the public mind, however, I am sure that most readers hear "Southern Baptists" and think about white suburbanites in pews. Yet here we had a giant black SBC church merging with a smaller white SBC church and moving on with a diverse leadership team.

Is that fact an important part of the story? Did the Post editors not see the importance of that detail or did they simply forget to ask what brand of Baptists were pulling off this highly symbolic interracial marriage?


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