Listening to Rev. Smith Sunday night reminded me of my own story of racial reconciliation in the SBC. When I was in college, I served as the youth minister of a small Baptist church in a small Texas town. It was a town of 400 people, half of whom considered themselves Baptist, with about 80 in the pews of our church every week.
The town itself was built around the intersection of two insignificant farm-to-market roads where dilapidated brick buildings stood mostly abandoned, built when cotton was king. The bank was in one of those buildings--a two-story brick building with swinging screen doors adorned with fading signs advertising Rainbo bread. Next door to the bank was a true general store with overpriced, dusty groceries and a lunch counter in the back that served hearty breakfasts and amazing hamburgers to townspeople and the Hispanic field hands that worked on nearby farms. It felt like going back in time.
Anyway, one of my tasks as youth minister was to invite all the town's high school seniors to baccalaureate at our church on the Sunday before graduation. I got the list from the high school registrar and set about sending out invitations. Most of the townspeople I knew had their mail delivered to P. O. boxes (oh, yeah, the post office was caddy corner from the bank on the town "square.") However, on this list there were several students listed only by name and street--no house number, no phone number--so I set out in my car delivering invitations to kids who lived in unpainted wooden shacks and shabby travel trailers down dusty dirt roads that I didn't even know existed. Often, I had to ask around to find the senior in question and handed over the invitation personally to his or her bewildered relatives who promised to attend the service.
Imagine how shocked my congregation was when they discovered what I had done. I had, for the very first time in memory, invited the African American seniors to baccalaureate at the white Baptist church. Imagine how shocked I was to discover that the policy for decades had been to exclude those kids and their families from the annual service. I sputtered in indignation, the church convened a meeting, had a robust discussion, and then voted unanimously to let the invitations stand.
On the day of the baccalaureate, three black seniors and their parents and grandparents showed up for the service and, while I admired their courage, I was amazed by my church. Members of all ages and social strata flocked to the visitors to welcome them and shake their hands. They were so welcoming, in fact, that a few of the black seniors' parents returned to visit the worship services for the next two weeks and expressed appreciation for the church's hospitality.
All's well that ends well and that story ended pretty well. There was never any question again about who was welcome in our church, much less at senior baccalaureate, and occasionally those students would join in our youth group activities or their families would attend events at our church. I wish I could say that there was a large-scale integration, that deeply held prejudices were healed and that living conditions improved for those kids. None of that happened. But that day, at Central Baptist Church in a small town in Texas, different kinds of people were willing to let go of the way things had always been done and consider new possibilities and I was glad to see it.