LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—New fruit is budding from a previous dying-on-the-vine event, which originated from some tiny seeds planted here in 1971. That year, two Baptist congregations—one white, one African-American—began worshiping together once a year. In the 1980s, the two grew to four—but it was basically an exchange of pulpits and choirs with a fellowship. It had no legs, no energy beyond the moment.
But organizers felt guilty discontinuing it. Directly because of a screening of “Beneath the Skin,” the DVD on racial attitudes in America, that withering concept suddenly got new life. A group of white and African-American pastors and church leaders determined to do something with more action and more clout. Four participating churches grew to 10 (five white, five black), including St. Mark’s Baptist Church, the largest predominantly African-American congregation in Arkansas. They all gathered on Sunday night Feb. 22 at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock. “God is not the author of confusion and division,” said Bishop Steven Arnold, the senior pastor at St. Mark’s, in his sermon.
It was based on Peter and John, often rivals as disciples of Jesus, uniting to heal a lame man at the temple gate. It was an energizing, amen-laced, hand-clapping, rise-and-shout, sometimes foot-stomping sermon. But observers, who had been to many such events and had heard that type of sermon before, noticed there was a different and fresh feel this time—almost like a Pentecostal wind. Maybe it was the setting. Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, which participated in the event for the first time, is situated in a traditional, upscale, old-money neighborhood that was for so long a “no man’s land for black people”—unless they were hired help. Maybe it was a common cause.
Fitz Hill, the president of Arkansas Baptist College, told his story of going from head football coach at San Jose State University to president of a college that had been given up for dead. Hill gave his vision of how he wants ABC, which, with the aid of CBF of Arkansas and others, is growing and blooming before his eyes. With four renovated houses and another in the pipeline adjacent to the main campus, Hill wants to make ABC a template for how historically black colleges can change a culture and transform a neighborhood.
Maybe it was the foundation. An offering was taken in memory of Robert C. Ferguson, a white pastor, and W.O. Lindsey, an African-American pastor and supporter of ABC, who forged a partnership “back in the day” when those relationships just didn’t happen in the South. Maybe it was the music by recording artist Kate Campbell, who performed a moving song she had written about the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Maybe it was the crowd. Pews on the level were packed, black and white often sitting side by side. Even the balcony had few open spots.
Organizers printed 300 programs and those quickly vanished. Maybe it was the common spirit. As Rev. Carolyn Staley, a minister at Pulaski Heights, led in the hymn “Children of God,” much of the audience, black and white, swayed to the music. When people were encouraged to greet someone they didn’t now, they really did it—handshakes, smiles and hugs. Maybe it was just magical inspiration, exemplified by 5-year-old Connor Whitlow, who chose on his own to attend instead of staying at home and playing. The emphasis was not on what was happening that night, but on what it could lead to. In his sermon, Arnold noted that many translations of the Peter/John healing refer to “a certain man.” “What that tells me is it’s really not important what color the man was,” he said. “It tells me to look beyond color and see the need.
Too often color, denomination and what we believe or don’t believe get in the way, and the world is going to hell in a hand basket because we are arguing over our differences.” Arnold emphasized the importance of seeing and touching—two key elements, from his perspective, of the miracle. “Church folks tend to get blind when we want to,” he said. “We see messed up things in our community and we close our eyes. There comes a time we’ve got to look at the ugliness in the world in which we live.” Amidst the “amens” and “yeahs” that burst around like popcorn, Arnold spoke about touch.
“The challenge is for everybody God is touching to touch somebody else,” Arnold said. “And don’t wait to get to church to start touching folks. Folks outside these walls need to be touched by Jesus Christ.” As part of the benediction, Staley challenged those assembled to look beyond the feel-good nature of how far things have come, even committing herself to getting to know better the Pulaski Heights custodian, a black man she sees almost every day.
“We can be nostalgic about the good ol’ civil rights days that took us to the mountaintop, but we have work today in the valleys,” she said. “We’re good at saying something; we ought to do something.” “What the world is looking for is the movement of God through the church of God,” Arnold said. And afterward, several white and African-American leaders mingled and set up times for follow-up conversations and action plans.
They talked about things such as stopping the prison cycle among youth, teen pregnancy, racism and the continued development of Arkansas Baptist College. There was movement during Arnold’s sermon, but just as compelling, there was notable movement afterward—and not just to the exits. David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.