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Baptist Leader: Baylor Incident Must Spark Honesty about Racism

Friday, 14 November 2008, 9:35 (EST)
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The Baptist approach to racism is best described as “resolutionary,” at least within the dominant white community, according to a white Baptist leader who grew up in Nigeria.

“Every time we face a racial problem, we resolve to do better,” expressed Dr. Robert M. Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, earlier this week.

“At annual meetings, we pass resolutions condemning racism and promise to combat it. Resolutions make us feel good without doing good,” he continued.

But are they just words, he asked.

Parham’s comments on Monday followed last week’s “deeply disturbing” incident at Baylor University, the largest Baptist school in the world and Parham’s alma mater.

On Nov. 4, Election Day, a noose was hung from a tree at the Waco, Texas-based university and yard signs for Barack Obama and Joe Biden were burned.

The following day, David Garland, the university’s interim president, issued a statement condemning the actions, calling the events “deeply disturbing to us and are antithetical to the mission of Baylor University.”

“We categorically denounce and will not tolerate racist acts of any kind on our campus,” he stated.

While Parham approved of Garland’s statement, the Baptist leader noted Monday that fellow Baptists need to offer more than just words – as most Baptist denominations have already done in the past, including the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist World Alliance and the North American Baptist Conference.

“Baylor’s interim president no doubt honestly denounced signs of hate at his school. But given Baptist history, more public words will be neither enough for Baylor, nor for Baptists,” Parham wrote in a commentary Monday.

According to Parham, the first step requires honesty, as highlighted in a new educational DVD produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics and released last month.

“Let’s be honest about where we are,” he stated.

Advanced statistical analysis of a study released last month by the Gallup Organization for Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion showed that whites in racially homogeneous white churches are two times less likely to vote for a racial minority presidential candidate.

The more homogeneously white a congregation is, the less likely the white respondent was to support a racial minority candidate, the Baylor Religion Survey found.

“For many church-going whites, attending religious services does not bring them into contact with persons of other racial backgrounds,” said Dr. Kevin D. Dougherty, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor who specializes in religion, organizations, race and ethnicity, explained. “It is easy to be distrustful of another group of people when someone is not personally acquainted with anyone from that group.”

Parham similarly pointed to the importance of establishing cross-racial relationships.

“We, white Baptists, need to listen to other Baptists of color. And we can’t listen if we are never in relationship, in ongoing conversation, with them,” he stated.

In BCE’s new DVD, "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism," experts from across the Baptist spectrum were interviewed, including Alan Stanford, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship in Falls Church, Va.; Marilyn Turner, associate executive director of ABC/USA National Ministries in Valley Forge, Pa.; Joseph Phelps, pastor at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.; and Wayne Ward, retired theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

While the educational DVD asserts that racism is far from eradicated either inside or outside of the church, it shows how many Baptists are working together to break down dividing walls of race and ethnicity.

It examines both past mistakes – like the role of white Christians in trans-Atlantic slave trade and during segregation – and current and future issues like immigration.

Last month, the DVD won the award for best documentary at the International Black Film Festival of Nashville.

“We knew the narratives were powerful and the interviews were effective and moving,” commented Parham.

“We knew the broad sweep – from a slave castle outside Accra, Ghana, to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – encapsulated social movements and theological arguments,” he continued. “We knew that recalling some of the worst and best moments in Baptist history would challenge Baptist church members. We knew that Baptists know they must deal with this issue.”

Though the DVD highlights the issue of race among Baptists, Parham says it’s really about more than Baptists.

“It is about how historically some Christians justified theologically slavery and segregation. It is also about how contemporary Christians see theologically and read culturally encoded racism,” he explained.

The DVD is currently available in both a 47-minute version designed for use in Bible study classroom settings over a four-week period and a 35-minute edition for use in public screenings along with a panel discussion. Each version has four main chapters: "Racism Defined," "Opening the Bible," "Encoded Racism" and "Five Ways Forward."

This week, the students of Baylor went to work to begin spanning the divide that some say appears to separate black and white students.

Like BCE’s Parham, Baylor students have criticized the school for simply reacting to racially motivated incidents and not encouraging racial tolerance from the first day students step on campus by holding seminars and discussions for freshmen during welcome week, the Tribune-Herald reported.

On Tuesday, at least 40 students of various races, religious backgrounds and viewpoints discussed race relations at a weekly “Frankly Speaking” dialogue at Baylor University, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Wednesday morning chapel services furthermore included presentations by the newly formed Bias Motivated Incident Support Team and about 60 students, faculty members and school administrators gathered at Miller Chapel at 4 p.m. for a prayer rally for unity.

On Friday morning, student groups like the Association of Black Students and Baylor’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter are holding a silent march in hopes of stamping out fast any campus racism there may be.

With nearly 14,000 students, Baylor University is the largest Baptist university in the world by enrollment. According to annual rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, the university is currently tied for 75th place out of 248 national universities.


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