Two Southern Baptist Convention agencies have distributed a racially controversial poster to churches, promoting the denomination's annual international mission offering.
At the top of the glossy poster in large letters are the words "Dispel the Darkness." Beneath the poster is a picture of a bare-chested black man with beads around his neck. His unshaven face stares down at a piece of paper. His left-hand holds a book, while his right-hand holds a pen. A small beam of light shines down on him.
The poster promotes a week of prayer for the International Mission Board and its annual Lottie Moon Christmas offering. The offering goal is $115 million.
The Woman's Missionary Union, an SBC missions education and promotion organization, produced the poster. A WMU and IMB staff team approved the poster.
Some 200,000 posters were printed, said WMU spokesperson Teresa Dickens.
The poster came to BCE's attention when a church WMU director said she would not use it for fear of offending her African-American and African friends. The WMU director is a retired SBC missionary to Africa. Her church collected $75,000 for the Lottie Moon Christmas offering in 1999.
In American culture, darkness and blackness are associated with evil and badness. Light and white are associated with goodness.
Picturing a black man with the theme of dispelling darkness ignores these cultural realities and the denomination's racist past. It also raises questions about the racial sensitivity within agency bureaucracies.
The SBC was founded in 1845 largely over the issue of slavery. Northern Baptists favored the abolition of slavery. Southern Baptists supported slavery. They also were slow to oppose lynching and to support desegregation and civil rights.
The SBC did issue an apology for slavery in 1995. Its non-binding resolution pledged Southern Baptists to "eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry."
In light of the SBC's controversial history on race, the poster is grossly insensitive.
"Anything we can do to show more sensitivity to the personhood of others will aid the effectiveness of our mission efforts," said Emmanuel McCall, pastor of Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.
From 1968 to 1991, McCall served in the Black Church Relations Division of the SBC's Home Mission Board, now named the North American Mission Board. McCall is the vice-chair of BCE's board of directors.
The poster's goal was to communicate the urgency of sharing the Gospel message, Dickens said.
"WMU regrets that anyone would find the photograph offensive. It was never our intent to communicate a racially-biased message," she said.
Nevertheless, churches should consider the potential negative impact such a poster could have on African-American church members and African visitors.
Churches should also think about whether the poster reinforces the negative stereotype of Africans living without electricity and clothing.
Dickens noted that IMB's annual report has the same photograph with the title "The Unfinished Task 2000: Dispelling the Darkness."
Anger was expressed in the 1999 Baptist World Alliance conference on Baptists against racism over similar images being used, said McCall.
"Leaders of mission-receiving nations expressed their anger in the way their peoples have been portrayed by mission-sending nations," he said.
Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.