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'Festival of Unity'
Four African American Baptist Churches Celebrate Unity

By Denton Lotz

January 28, 2005, NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Baptist World Alliance) -- Four African American Conventions came to Nashville, Tennessee, the week of January 24-27 to celebrate their unity in Christ. This historic meeting, attended by more than 10,000 persons, is a significant step in helping Black Baptists exercise their strength in unity in government, culture and church life.

The National Baptist Convention was founded in 1895 but over the years has split into four conventions: National Baptist Convention of the USA, Inc., Progressive National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America, and the National Missionary Baptist Convention. Collectively the membership of the four conventions is approximately 15 million baptized believers, with a community of 30 million persons.

African American leadership in the past 50 years has provided the American Black community with leadership in the civil rights movement; of course the most prominent leader was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But a whole host of other African American Baptist leaders reads like a "who's who" of civil rights leaders.

Although social justice is a major concern of the African American Conventions, the strength of the Black conventions, like that of most Baptists, is the local church. Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized the church as "the beloved community" because it provided solace, comfort, social cohesiveness, opportunity for leadership denied by the white community, political power, pastoral care and inspiration and encouragement for living every day even though pain and persecution, and jail were unbearable.

The spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen-Nobody Knows but Jesus." summarizes the encouragement for daily living that millions of African Americans received from Sunday morning worship services. Black worship, has usually avoided the restrictions of fundamentalism and its divisiveness. The Black Baptist Conventions did not divide over doctrinal questions, but over political involvement, power and leadership, i.e. ecclesiology and structure was the issue. The new unity that the African American Conventions expressed in these Nashville meetings is centered around a new agenda of social concern for the poor, education, medical concerns, employment, war and peace -- issues in which African Americans find a united front over against a lack of government concern.

African American Baptists have always been united in their doctrine of Christ. The crucified Christ and his suffering and the hope of future redemption and liberation have been the sustaining themes of their music: "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?", "I'm Gonna Walk All Over God's Heaven", etc. The African American church thrives on great preaching which centers on Christ, the Cross, hope, forgiveness, redemption and salvation, and liberation now and at the end of time.

The concluding service of this "festival of unity" featured one of the greatest living preachers, Gardner C. Taylor; however the week highlighted other great preachers also including: Charles G. Adams, J. Alfred Smith, and convention presidents, William Shaw; Melvin Wade; Stephen Thurston and Major Jemison.

At one of the evening sessions the sermon was delivered by Major Jemison, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. His electrifying sermon spoke of "the best of times and the worst of times."

He highlighted the tragic war in Iraq, the loss of life and the waste of funds which could have been better used for organizing schools and helping the poor. The best of times was the Biblical hope of Revelation 3: "I have set before you an open door...that no one can close."

Delegates were on their feet cheering as Dr. Jemison urged African American Baptists to unite and walk through that open door.

This was one of the most significant conferences I've had the privilege to attend in the last ten years! The spirit of unity and love in Christ was an encouraging sign in the face of disunity and discouragement many Baptist conventions are experiencing worldwide. I was very encouraged by all four conventions and their great support of the  Baptist World Alliance. All their leaders will be in England to celebrate the centennial of the BWA.

Again what a pleasant experience to be with Baptists who were celebrating in unity. Again and again I heard the Psalmist, "How pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity!" I believe that African American Baptist voices can be an encouragement to Baptists of the world to work to fulfill Jesus' prayer, "Father I pray that they all may be that the world might believe." In this centennial year, may this be the prayer of all our 211 BWA member bodies. "To God be the Glory."


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