Yesterday marked 152 years since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, yet 2014 likely will be remembered for some time in the U.S. for its racial conflict, simultaneously when our first African American president was in his second term. It’s discouraging, to say the least, but the story of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and its racially diverse congregation continues to inspire me, so much so that I became a member of the church myself. Check out the .pdf for a snapshot of just how diverse we are: bcafeaturestory I was humbled to receive a first place award from BCA for this one. Here’s the story:
“As a body of Christians, we deplore the un-Christian practices so widely prevalent in many of our racial relationships.”
The wording might seem tepid in today’s social climate, but in 1937, messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention made history when they passed the SBC’s first resolution on race.
Today, according to the SBC, nearly one in five of all Southern Baptist churches in the U.S. are comprised primarily of non-Anglo members. In Kentucky, 23 of the 45 new churches started in 2006 were ethnic congregations, mostly Hispanic, according to the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Still, the two largest racial groups in Kentucky, Anglos and African-Americans, largely remain segregated on Sundays, even in communities where blacks and whites are neighbors.
An exception in KBC life is Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, a community of faith that reflects its community of residence. Charlie Davis has served as pastor for 18 years. He said the neighborhood has become more racially diverse in that time. Today, he estimates, about 15 percent of local residents are African-American.
“Thirty to 40 percent of our new members over the past five years have been black,” he added. About 350 people attend Sunday services each week.
When Dwight and Berniece Allen first came to Hunsinger Lane, there were very few other black faces in the congregation, they said. Previously the couple attended churches where most of members were black.
Mrs. Allen said when God led her to Hunsinger Lane, she asked Him, “Are you sure?”
That was 12 years ago. Today, she teaches an adult Sunday school class that mirrors the racial diversity of the church.
Dwight Allen, a Louisville native, endured bussing, a segregated city park system and other forms of racial discrimination as a child. He admits he carried bitterness from those experiences, but credits God, and a black pastor’s attempt to build a partnership with an Anglo congregation, for letting go of the past.
“God helped me get past that, and when He did, He opened a whole new world to me,” Allen said.
That new world includes close friendships with white members of his church family, such as David and Sandra Derryberry.
Originally from Selma, Ala., David Derryberry said he was in the last all-white graduating class of his high school, then attended predominantly white colleges.
Having black friends was something “I’d never really thought about,” he said.
The Derryberrys moved to Louisville and in 1998 joined Hunsinger Lane. They are members of Mrs. Allen’s Sunday school class.
David Derryberry considers the Allens “God’s missionaries to the white people of the church to help us along” the path to racial diversity, a path that has had a few bumps along the way.
He said there have been gaffes, largely unintentional, that have caused hurt feelings between some of the Anglo and African-American members.
A sense of humor helps, Mrs. Allen said, recalling a white member who speculated the church would need to adjust its worship style to accommodate the new black members.
“I asked, ‘Have you been to all the black churches in town?’ … All black people don’t do things the same way, just like all white people don’t do things the same way.”
Derryberry and the Allens said most of the rifts have been temporary and became opportunities for spiritual maturity.
“We’re all still human. We’re going to hurt each other,” Derryberry said. “Thank God He forgives us and we can forgive each other.”
During tense times, Allen said, he has tried to be “open, honest and truthful” and allow God to work through the difficulties.
“That’s what growth is,” he said.
The three friends said talking about differences between the cultures instead of trying to ignore them reduces the common fear of saying something inappropriate.
As the friendships have grown, church members have become comfortable enough with one another to do some teasing, Mrs. Allen said. Once, a white member offered her coffee with the joking assumption that Mrs. Allen would “take it black.”
She said she laughed and replied, “I don’t even drink coffee.”
Davis said as more people of different races began attending Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church, some Anglo members approached him with concerns. “It was mostly fear of the unknown,” Davis said, but noted that interracial dating and marriage was mentioned most often, along with changes in worship style.
Some people “are more concerned with their child marrying someone of another race than if their child married a non-Christian,” he said.
The Bible clearly accepts marriages between people of different races, he added. “From what I’ve studied, the forbidding of marriages (had more to do with) God’s people marrying pagans.”
Pastor: Believers should re-examine the gospel
Mrs. Allen said she believes the reason Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians remain segregated on Sundays is because many people refuse to discuss the issue in the light of God’s teachings. “We don’t talk about it as Christians,” she said.
Some people believe differences in culture provide a sort of permission to keep blacks and whites separated on Sundays, Davis said. He disagrees strongly.
“Every aspect of our culture in the United States is integrated,” he said, noting schools, businesses and the legal definition of marriage are, by law, color blind.
“What that says is the world has less issue with the unity of race than the church does.” The ongoing segregation of churches, “is more than discouraging,” he added. “I think it’s a sin.”
Davis, Derryberry and the Allens credit God for the racial diversity and harmony at HLBC.
The issue cannot be addressed successfully through a book or a program, Davis explained. “It is a work of God’s Spirit through the gospel.
“The gospel provides all men and women with a new righteous standing before God. That’s part of the gospel,” he said. “The other part of the gospel is a social transformation … that because of the gospel, we as races and people come together, and come to one another, equally.
“That’s the part of the gospel that we as a church are not addressing,” he continued. He refers to this as an understanding of “our new race” as Christians.
Dwight Allen sums it up another way: “Christianity has no color.”
If a church wants to be more welcoming to people of other races, more is required than a couple of joint services annually with a congregation of another color, Mrs. Allen said.
Such efforts often accomplish little “other than to sit on the pew with someone of another race. … No real relationships are built.”
Davis agreed, noting that a racially diverse church family begins its journey worshiping together on Sunday mornings, then progresses outside the sanctuary.
At Hunsinger Lane, racial diversity extends to committees and the deacon board, the Sunday school class and also to the church staff.
A big step, Davis said, is when black or white homes are opened, perhaps for the first time, to people of another race.
“You have to pay attention to God and see how He wants to do it,” Derryberry said. “If you’re open to loving people, God’s going to bring you people to love. Some of them are going to be white; some of them are going to be black.”
Mrs. Allen said taking time to learn the racial and cultural make-up of the community around the church is important and can prevent members from seeming phony about efforts to be multi-cultural.
“Live who you are,” she said. “If you live in a diverse community, you should have a diverse church.”
Davis agreed. “I’m not saying every church should be fully integrated but I think every Christian church that says, ‘we believe the gospel’ should be working towards it.”
(With information from Baptist Press)
Feb. 10, 2009 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder