Baptists of various races gathered Thursday in Norman, Okla., for a discussion that a prominent Southern Baptist African-American pastor called "courageous, prophetic and appropriate."
Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, commended the Midwest Regional Meeting of the New Baptist Covenant for creating dialogue on issues of race.
The gathering, the fourth regional meeting of the New Baptist Covenant movement, started Thursday and continues today. The theme for the gathering is "Building Bridges." Speakers will include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, Southern Baptist pastor and blogger Wade Burleson, Progressive Baptist leader Major Jemison and Palestinian pastor Hana Massad.
Thursday afternoon's session included a screening of EthicsDaily.com's award-winning documentary "Beneath the Skin," which was followed by comments from several panelists. Also speaking Thursday afternoon was former Republican U.S. Representative from Oklahoma J.C. Watts.
During the panel discussion, McKissic argued that "healing the racial divide is probably at least equally as important if not more important to Christian evangelism, discipleship, ministry and church planting as addressing the topics … such as abortion and gay marriage and other hot-button issues." He urged Baptists to work against "systemic and encoded racism."
Laura Cadena, director of communications for Mercy Street and member of the Baylor School of Social Work Board of Advocates and the Baptist University of the America's Women in Ministry Advisory Board, was interviewed in the film. During the panel discussion, she argued that despite progress, racism still exists. She added that in many cases, "anti-immigration has become anti-Hispanic."
Cadena stated that Baptists and others could build bridges "by being open and willing to share our stories with one another."
Kim Henry, First Lady of Oklahoma, thanked the organizers for bringing about this "important discussion that we need to have." She shared about her trip to Ghana two years ago to distribute mosquito nets for HIS Nets, a charitable organization that works with the Baptist World Alliance and is based in Norman, Okla.
Javier Elizondo, executive vice president and provost of the Baptist University of the Americas, referenced the recent controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates as proof that America is not a "post-racial" society.
"We're still very much in the midst of this struggle and seeking to build bridges and make peace between the races and the cultures of this country," he added.
Fitz Hill, president of Arkansas Baptist College, argued that "our experiences so often shape our perspectives." Thus, he realized he had "better be receptive to everything around me and not count anything out."
Tim Eaton, president of Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College, also spoke. Eaton shared about the early anti-slavery commitment and witness of "part of the Baptist family" and Hillsdale's effort toward building a diverse community.
Prior to the screening and discussion of "Beneath the Skin," Watts, the former congressman and a Baptist minister, addressed the gathering. Watts was the first African-American elected to a statewide office in Oklahoma and the first Republican African-American to hold a congressional leadership position.
Watts told those present that "a compassionate love for the individual is what should drive us" in seeking to reach those in "this tortured culture that we're living in." He added that we must follow God's example by having love that is "inclusive" and "unconditional."
"God loves us all — red, yellow, brown, black and white," Watts added as he urged churches to become fishers of all people and seek to reach "red, yellow, brown, black and white fish."
He also asked how one can say "that Christ is in our DNA" if one does not care about issues like AIDS in Africa and poverty or does not care about those who are of a different race.
In introductory remarks before the film, Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, argued that more work is needed on the issue of race. He noted, however, that Baptists have made progress recently, such as with the New Baptist Covenant movement and the election of Jamaican Baptist leader Neville Callam as the first non-Caucasian general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
"The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones," Parham added. "The Stone Age ended when we found a better way. The age of racism for Baptists will not end because we run out of races. The age of racism for Baptists will end when we find a better way."
In addition to the main session screening and panel discussion, some of the panelists also participated in a breakout session to continue the dialogue. "Beneath the Skin" was previously screened and discussed during breakout sessions at the regional New Baptist Celebration meetings in Birmingham, Ala., and Kansas City, Mo.
The Midwest Regional Meeting of the New Baptist Covenant continues today, and sessions can be watched via live streaming video on the home page of EthicsDaily.com.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.