January 18, 2010

A Southern Baptist's Pilgrimage From Racism

Below is the first non-academic theological essay which I wrote as a pastor, back in 1996. It was originally accepted for publication in the Christian Century, if I would modify the language of inerrancy. I refused and it remained unpublished. In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., I offer it here for the first time publicly. 

It Started in Panama 

Parked in a shady spot near a gas station along a highway in the Central American country of Panama, I noticed a dark object in the road a little bit away in the opposite lane. Four-year olds often perceive what others may miss. That ebony object in the road was not a dog or a wild animal, but a human being. What was amazing to my little mind was that a truck came barreling along and ran over that man's body as if it was nothing. I can still see the indentations in his flesh where the wheels of more than one automobile had crushed him. I had often taken my toy cars and pushed tracks into the wet mud in a similar manner. I looked to my father, "Daddy, why doesn't anyone stop?" He turned, surveyed the scene, and quickly hustled my brothers and me back into the car. He drove away without a word, but with an inexplicable look upon his face. How do you tell a three young boys that a black man's life is cheap? 

Some months later, my father drove us into the "wrong" section of Panama City. There were several black boys who began throwing rocks at us. My father quickly turned the little red car around and gunned it out of danger. "Daddy, why did they throw rocks at us? We didn't do anything to them!" Again, no answer. 

My daddy was from the mountains of central Pennsylvania, a stronghold of abolitionist Quakerism, but where few minorities dwelt. However, my mother was from the swamps and hills of northern Louisiana, a stronghold of racial segregation, and a deeply divided black-white population. My father was a life-long military man. Since he was transferred quite often, we were exposed to numerous cultures on the North American continent. We lived for periods of one to four years in New York, Panama, Louisiana, Illinois, Alaska, Maine, Indiana, and back to Louisiana again. 

In the military of the 1960s and 1970s, the official policy was racial desegregation, and as we grew up in the same schools, most Air Force "brats" took little notice of the differences between our races and originating cultures. That is, until we were exposed to the local, native schools. In the north, they used to ask me to talk so they could hear my southern accent. The local bullies would jeer, "Hey, listen everybody! He's going to say 'ya'll' again!" 

I became sensitive to being different. With every new move came a sense of depression. I lost old friends and had to make new ones all over again, an agonizing process for an introverted child. It was as if God arranged my life to make me empathetic to those who do not fit the mold, or who do not find it easy to change like chameleons with new situations. I learned to take people as they are, trying to suppress misconstrued, cultural judgment. 

How? I learned to lean on the Jesus of my mother and father. This Jesus came to me in songs, songs like "Jesus Loves Me" and another old favorite,

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, 
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, 
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Like most children, I took those songs and the red, printed words of Jesus in my Bible quite literally. Jesus spoke of loving your neighbor. In the story of the "Good Samaritan," I learned that my neighbor was anyone who was near me. So I loved anybody near me. Color did not matter. In my foolish, simple, little mind, that was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my confusion when a young friend and I were beaten up by a group of black boys in North Chicago because we happened to be the wrong color and had accidentally missed the bus home that day. 

You can imagine my confusion when I heard the kids in the high school in Maine denounce each other with racist slurs. The walls shook with invective. I thought Jesus commanded us to love each other. Soon, I learned that not everybody revered the words of Jesus. Unbelievers could be excused to a degree for their hatred, perhaps they just did not know any better. 

However, my confusion increased a hundredfold after I became pastor of a medium-sized church in a transitional neighborhood on the edge of a major city in Louisiana. Before that, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, we were presented with the Church Growth Movement as the ultimate expression of a vital church. 

Yet I pastored a new mission into existence in a run-down western Fort Worth apartment complex. We had forty or more black and white adults and children to serve. Nobody really noticed the dissimilitudes. It is hard to notice "otherness" when you have to fend off drunken fathers, addicted mothers, swarming cockroaches, absent landlords, and excruciating poverty. In such circumstances, people tend to rely on others who may help you, no matter their external oddities. God moved powerfully in that human-forsaken place.

Louisiana and Racism 

But in Louisiana, the differences were profound--the old segregation remained. I led Lakeview Baptist Church to begin reaching the neighborhood for Jesus Christ. Some of our youth wanted to know if they could invite their black friends. The very question shocked me. Why not? So, the black youth came. Then came the whispers, but I had heard whispers before and survived them. Why would anyone object to a black boy or girl coming to know Jesus? Doesn't he love the little children? That's what the Bible said. That's what the songs said. 

I did not realize it, but I violated a strong cultural more--blacks and whites do not mix in church. They may go to the same schools, the same stores, the same jobs, but they must not worship on the same sacred ground. In the 1950s, both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. expressed disgust that "eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." These two giants did what they could to rectify the situation in their own ways. Surely, by the 1990s, things had changed. Sadly, they had not. The church watched as the youth brought their friends and the grumbles progressed towards a roar. Try as I might, the Lord would not let the situation settle quietly down. 

During preparation for a revival, we took names from anyone who wanted the church to pray for the conversion of their family and friends. One black youth offered up his sister's name. We prayed for her along with forty or fifty other people--be careful about what you pray for. Soon after the end of the revival, on September 26, 1993, his sister came to church. She was twenty-three years old, seven months pregnant, and wore no ring on her finger. During the invitation, she came down the aisle. 

I knew the trouble this might cause. So when she told me she was being called by God to join the church in baptism, I became very tough on her. "When were you saved?" I queried. This was going to be just the first of many questions. Such a question was not bad in and of itself. Rather, these questions should be asked. But in my first years I had not asked any other convert such specific questions. Her answer still shakes me to the depth of my bones. "On the eighth of this month," she said so meekly. And then . . . well, then, she began to cry. I had never seen such a genuine display of Christ in my life. All I could think of before was how to keep her out, and now God had given me a new child to disciple, a child I I thought we were not prepared to handle. But God is sovereign.

When I presented her for membership, the church was still in shock and many voted yes. Others sat in their comfortable seats, arms folded, staring mutely. There was no open dissension, yet. Realizing my own sinful attitude, I felt the need to involve someone who could hold me accountable. Many white pastors in such a situation usually contact a local black pastor and quietly shuffle the convert into a black church--an older, white pastor encouraged me to take this very route. Every member of that church would have applauded or excused me if I had done so, but that was not the way of Christ. Moreover, she was convinced that God called her to Lakeview Baptist Church. There was no meanness or point to be made on her part. She was just humbly convinced this was God's will. Who am I to argue with God? She needed baptism, discipleship, and loving fellowship, and God had sent her to bless Lakeview Baptist Church. 

I called Rev. Milton Boyd, pastor of a black Southern Baptist church plant. I considered asking him to take her off my hands--that was my temptation. It would have been easier to put her off, save my career, and seek a means to put a salve on my torn conscience. But what I asked him to do seemed to come off the top of my head. "Milton, you don't know me. But I know you, and I want you to hold me accountable. I am the pastor of a white church and a pregnant, black, unwed teenager has just come for baptism. Will you meet with me on a regular basis to make sure I treat her no differently than I would anyone else?" Milton needed no time. His answer was simply, "When do we get started?" 

Pragmatically, I should never have done such a thing. We lost a number of families, tithing families. I faced a myriad of dilemmas, social and theological. The questions from the congregation were almost always of a social nature. How do we keep the white girls from marrying the black boys? How do we keep "them" from taking over "our" church? These questions loomed larger as blacks continued to join the church.

Church Growth Movement 

I had violated one of the cardinal rules of the very church growth I had been taught to implement, the homogeneous unit principle. One church growth guru listed the violation of this principle as the third of eight "growth-inhibiting diseases,"
People-blindness occurs when churches do not recognize the important cultural differences which glue large social groups together and which can become barriers to the communication of the Good News. The notion that "our church can win anybody" is good rhetoric, but poor church growth thinking. God has given your church the ability to reach only a limited number and kind of people, and this you should be doing well. That is why I mentioned that, in writing a philosophy of ministry, you need to be explicit about the sociocultural profile of your congregation. While biblical ethics do not permit a church to develop a racist or segregationist philosophy of ministry, they do not prohibit narrowcasting the gospel and giving priority to certain market segments. At the same time, efforts need to be made to see that other churches are established which qualify for reaching each one of the segments of society. In that way the total body reaches the total population.
Was Peter Wagner right? Had I violated a cardinal rule of the Church Growth Movement? I soon came to realize that such a gospel as this is not the gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles. Jesus did not come to divide people into "market segments" based on "sociocultural profiles." Rather, he came to break down the dividing wall of hostility. 

Paul, a Jew who brought uncircumcised Gentiles into the synagogue, seemed to have a parallel situation to my own. In his liberating letter to the Galatians he seemed to speak directly to the Church Growth Movement's homogeneous unit principle. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, . . . for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, anyone that "narrowcasts" the gospel necessarily changes the very nature of that gospel. He aptly wrote, "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (1:9). Finally, Paul said that bearing another's burdens is not a "growth-inhibiting disease," but a divine commandment (6:2). 

Other thoughts invaded my mind. Had I done a great disservice to my church? Was it going to be destroyed because of my childlike faith in a God who is no respecter of persons? I was thrown back on my Bible and the loving God revealed there. It seemed that every other support was failing. Most of my friends thought (and still think) I was too cavalier with tradition--"He's a little too prophetic, too confrontational." However, my Southern Baptist background bequeathed me another more important principle than the Church Growth Movement or my genteel, southern culture: an inerrant, authoritative Word.

The Inerrant, Authoritative Word of God 

If God's Word cannot err and if that Word provides the norm for the Christian life, what does it say about such a crass approach to reality as my childlike faith in a loving, reconciling God who ignores the differences between black and white? Should I really try to pastor a multi-racial flock? A rapid survey of Scripture revealed the thoughts of God on the subject:
I discovered that racists used the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 as one of many proof texts for racial hatred. But my theological mentor, James Leo Garrett Jr., demonstrated that such interpretations are clearly errant denials of the unity of mankind. 
In Numbers 12, Miriam objected to Moses' marriage to a black woman. A narrative reading of the text suggests that God responded, "If you want to be white, Miriam, I will give you white!" He then struck her with leprosy. 
In the book of Jonah, God dealt harshly with a prophet who had forgotten the Abrahamic covenant. YHWH wants to bless all the families of the earth through his chosen people (Genesis 12:3). 
The prophet Jeremiah was pulled out of the sewer, and a certain death, at the behest of a black man (38:7-13, 39:15-18). 
Jesus broke down the walls of Jewish particularism. The Jew prayed, "Thank God I was not born a Gentile, a woman, or a dog." Jesus let the crumbs of grace fall to the very "dog" which the Jews despised. 
Jesus went out of his way to point to the faith of a Roman centurion whose trust was greater than any Israelite's. 
God allowed a black man the privilege of carrying Christ's cross to Calvary. 
It was a Samaritan, a despised half-breed, who became the prototypical neighbor. 
Philip, the liberal prophet--liberal, that is, in spreading the Word of God--took the Word to an Ethiopian and baptized him. He even took the Word to the despised Samaritans (Acts 8ff). 
Paul was taken to task several times for his willingness to offer the gospel freely to those of other races and cultures. 
Peter received the revelation of the sheet to open his heart to the Gentiles. 
Yet later, Paul was compelled to remind Peter of the universal scope of God's grace (Galatians 1-2). 
Finally, in the Revelation, we see around the throne, people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. There are no "market segments" in glory! 
And on earth? Well, Jesus tells us to pray, "on earth as it is in heaven."
It seems that the inerrant Word tears down racism, particularism, or the homogeneous unit principle, whatever one may call such wall-building. Any individual or church which takes the Word of God seriously cannot harbor racism of any kind in their attitude and ethics. 

When I realized the Biblical message, I immediately preached a sermon to my congregation and confessed my sin of racism. I begged God for forgiveness because I had treated this precious child of His harshly because of her skin color and because of my fear of an irate congregation. He gave me the strength to do what was right and love my neighbor. Many in the congregation fled to other churches. Many repented with me. Miraculously, providentially, the congregation actually grew in numbers and in faith. 

A Theology of Image and Koinonia 

Ultimately, the question must be asked, do people who are different than me have souls? Most certainly, they do. They, too, are created in the image of God. We learn in Genesis that God created humans in his image (1:26-27, 5.1). If murder is the destruction of that divine image (9:6), can exclusion by reason of race be anything but exclusion of the divine image? Furthermore, since destruction of the divine image is deserving of death, should not one practicing exclusion be punished by exclusion, too? Since God made humans in his image, all humans are greatly valued, no matter the color of their skin. 

The only way to bypass such a Biblical argument for universal dignity and love is to deny that someone is human. This is what the Nazis did to the Jews in World War II. They were designated as "sub-humans." It seems that the easiest way for any "Christian" to deny love and respect to another human is to deny their humanity, a path all too familiar for Southern Baptists, who, themselves, were born in reaction to anti-slavery sentiments in the north. The steps from sub-human to animal to inanimate object are easy once the step from human to sub-human is taken. 

In addition to the theology of image, there is the theology of koinonia. In his first epistle, John gave his readers a method by which they could judge their assurance of salvation. There are three primary measures: obedience, confession of Christ, and koinonia. John spoke in stark times of light and darkness, love and hate. He equated koinonia, fellowship, with God and fellowship with God's people. "He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light. . ." (I John 2:9ff). The implications were clear. If I love and fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, black or white, I have love and fellowship with God (cf., Jesus' new commandment, John 13:34-35). If I do not koinonia with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not koinonia with God. 

The "M" Group 

Milton and I met with Mark Eakin, a white pastor, on a Thursday morning in the first part of October 1993. Mark was invited by Milton with my permission. We met at the Freestate Diner in the northern industrial section of Shreveport. Soon, Milton Boyd, the quintessential organizer, invited Milton Huston, a black pastor in transition between churches, and Mel Brown, black pastor of a mission sponsored by Highland Baptist Church in Shreveport. There never really seemed to be any question but that we would continue to meet for prayer, fellowship, accountability, and encouragement. We eventually called ourselves the "M" group because all of our names started with that letter. Others came and went, but these five remained the core of the group, meeting weekly. 

We discovered much about ourselves, the sinfulness of our cultures, and the graciousness of God in those meetings. I have never felt such intense fellowship in my life. There was an unfilled void in my heart after I was called away to pastor in North Carolina and further my education at Duke University. What made the "M" group special? I think it opened several doors and kept some rather weak men strong. (It also became a dynamic witness to other patrons of the restaurant.) 

First, it provided a deep, Christian fellowship. We brought our problems openly and humbly to the table and received encouragement and exhortation. Milton Boyd made sure that nothing was ever glossed over. He became our undesignated leader. His spiritual gift is definitely administration. Mark, a compassionate man, encouraged us with the gift of mercy. Milton Huston came to have a special place in my heart--he is a hero of the faith. He once invited us over to his home for breakfast. He cooked, his wife was our excellent hostess, and when his sister began to sing, heaven came down and glory filled our souls. Mel and I were the prophetic ones. He and I could butt heads with the best. We each shared Biblical insights, sermon materials, and illustrations--some sessions were downright sermonic. My preaching and devotional life improved tremendously. 

Second, the "M" group was special because it allowed us to see life through a different set of lenses. I had no idea of the respect which a black pastor commands in his community. It makes most white pastors, who find little reason to challenge the status quo out of fear for the loss of face and income, look kept. I also had no idea of the pain of being treated as a second-class citizen at best and sub-human at worst. Rarely, in these days, is such treatment overt, but it exists nonetheless. Mark and I were taken out of our privileged, white, middle-class, Republican-voting backgrounds and introduced to the vagaries of a segregated existence. 

Third, the "M" group was special because it kept our theology straight. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few Christian martyrs of Nazi Germany, once attended Union Theological Seminary. He could not stand the irrelevant preaching in the mainline churches in the area,
One may hear sermons in New York upon almost any subject; one only is never handled, . . . namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness. . . .
Bonhoeffer found a black church in Harlem--the Abyssinian Baptist Church--that taught the gospel faithfully. There, Bonhoeffer says he became a Christian. He subsequently returned to Germany under a divine burden and became a lone voice crying for the German church to deny Hitler and his antichrist laws. Like Bonhoeffer in Harlem, we discovered that the "M" group exposed the cultural accretions to the gospel we were preaching. Like barnacles attacking a ship, churches of all types have been left increasingly dead in the water because of their sanctification of cultural ideals. As black pastor and white pastor came together, we learned better what was culture and what was Christ. As different aspects of our theology and ethics revealed themselves to be profane or sacred, we adjusted our preaching and activities accordingly. 

The "M" group helped me to see the gospel for what it really is--the grace of the eternal, incarnated, crucified, triumphant God. I also learned that I wanted to be instrumental in the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ, and not just be another hired hand in a God-forsaken social club. I discovered that white pastors will preach against the sins characteristic of the black community while glossing over their own. Similarly, I heard from my brothers that black pastors are also tempted to preach against the sins characteristic of the white community while glossing over their own. Those pastors who address the true problems of, and true grace available to, their people are few and far between. 

Finally, the "M" group was special because it let me see the black community as part of the flock which God has given to me to minister the Word. I sense as much compassion for the black community's struggle with the appeal of the sword of Islam (in its many forms) as I do for the white community's struggle with the machine gun of Aryanism (in its many forms). I sense as much responsibility for the salvation of my black neighbors as I do for that of my white neighbors. When God calls a man to preach, He does not limit his audience by race. 

A Final Word 

Now that I am an adult, I will never again stand by and watch a man desecrated because of his parentage and the low price the dominant culture puts on his skin. Never again will I stand idly by while the name of Christ is proclaimed in the interest of racial superiority. Never again do I wish to preach a sermon to a congregation to confess my own sin of racism. Racism may continue to grip this nation, north and south, in its politics and in its individual and communal ethics, but this pastor will be a voice crying out against such sin. 

Mark and Milton led their respective churches into fellowship and cooperating covenants with one another. Milton and Mel continued their dynamic ministries. The "M" group continued to meet and grow after my departure. As for me, I will never trade my experience of pastoring an interracial church, and I will never forget my true friends, these pastors, my brothers in Christ. 

Soli Deo Gloria.


  1. Powerful testimony, brother!

  2. Great word, Dr. Yarnell. This encouraged me greatly.

  3. Anonymous5:45 PM

    A beautiful article...thank you for sharing your life and heart brother.


  4. Anonymous4:41 PM

    Thanks for sharing this article Dr. Yarnell. It's a shame it didn't get published. The section on inerrancy is my favorite part.


Edifying comments always appreciated!