by Diana Chandler
MOBILE, AL (BP) – Fifty-two years after the U.S. outlawed the importation of enslaved persons, the Clotilda docked in Mobile Bay with 110 West Africans purchased for $9,000 in gold and valued at 20 times more in 1860 Alabama.
“The Deep South has a skilled passive resistance mechanism,” in the words of white Southern Baptist pastor Ed Litton, who helped write the regional “Deep South Joint Statement on the Gospel, Racial Reconciliation, and Justice,” which was released today (Oct. 27) by three groups of diverse Christian pastors spanning two states.
“It took time for me to really see (the passive resistance) and get under conviction of what I needed to do and start to lead my church in that direction,” said the senior pastor of Redemption Church in the Mobile suburb of Saraland, Ala.
Litton, who noted the slave ship while discussing the city’s scarred past during an interview with Baptist Press, has worked for racial reconciliation for at least six years as a member of The Pledge Group of Mobile.
Since August, pastors and community leaders comprising the Pledge Group, One Charleston of Charleston, S.C., and Awaken Together of Montgomery, Ala., have worked on the statement aimed at spurring Bible-based racial reconciliation, multiracial conciliation and racial justice across the nation. Together, they represent decades of racial reconciliation efforts in the region.
“The reality is we have a steep history. We have a deep and painful scarred past, and we’re saying in spite of that, we believe God can heal us,” Litton told Baptist Press.
The statement noted that all three cities were prominent in the slave trade. Mobile is the last city where slaves were known to have been imported. The charred remains of the Clotilda were discovered in 2018 in the Mobile River. The ship’s captain had claimed he had scuttled and burned the ship in 1860 after the illegal delivery of enslaved persons.
The pastors and community leaders released the joint statement in a Zoom press conference today, announcing a Change.org petition that had garnered 85 of a desired 100 signatures at the time of this article’s publication. Leaders encouraged other grassroots groups to start additional petitions across the nation.
African American Southern Baptist Philip Pinckney, pastor of Radiant Church and a church planting associate with the Charleston Baptist Association (CBA), said he hopes the statement will encourage pastors in knowing that others within and outside the Southern Baptist Convention are concerned with their historical plight.
Principally in the statement, leaders “recognize and lament how the historic nature of our cities and region contributed to racial oppression and division in our country;” “realize that the problems we face are broad, the division caused by sin goes deep, and the hearts and souls of our neighbors remain profoundly and justly hurt by this sin;” and say they “believe that every person no matter what their color, culture, or creed is made in the image of God and because of that they have infinite worth, value, and dignity.”
The leaders, who come from several denominations, confessed that “our churches and our leaders have focused more on keeping things comfortable than on making things right;” and that the “Good News of Jesus mandates Christians to pursue a reconciliation that is centered on His redemptive work for humanity.” They committed to act in their own cities and in the region “to sacrificially love our neighbors of all backgrounds, to lay down our lives for one another, to work for justice to right past wrongs, and to rebuild our ancient cultural and relational ruins and raise up the age-old foundations (Isaiah 58:12) of trust, peace, and integrity….”
The statement comes as America prepares to elect a president and as the nation continues in months of racial strife following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Leaders use the analogy of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in saying that to ignore the issues of racial reconciliation and justice is tantamount to passing by on the other side of the street as the injured bleed in pain.
Marshall Blalock, senior pastor of Charleston First Baptist Church, who was among those who collaborated on the statement, was unable to participate in the news conference because of a funeral at the church. But in an interview with Baptist Press, he noted that for more than 100 years, Charleston First’s membership included enslaved Blacks who worshiped in the church’s balcony without the comfort of seating. They had to stand, as white members sat in pews on the main floor of the church.
“One of the steps involved in racial reconciliation is to acknowledge the sin and the wrong,” Blalock said. “Now I didn’t personally put slaves in balconies, but the legacy of that lives in the pain that people even today still experience as a result both of slavery and Jim Crow, separation, separate but not equal, all those things that have been heartbreaking, divisive and the result of sin and hatred.
“But the Gospel calls us to reconciliation. Ephesians 2 joins the atonement of Christ and the breaking down of the barrier of the dividing wall of hostility,” Blalock said. “There’s no more theological truth in the Bible than the atonement of Christ. And the apostle Paul tells us the atonement of Christ calls us to break down the barrier of the dividing wall of hostility between people of different backgrounds.”
In addition to Litton and Pinckney, other Southern Baptists on the call included One Charleston Executive Director RaShan Frost, pastor of the Bridge Church in Charleston; Craig Tuck, a One Charleston leader and CBA director of missions; Neal Hughes, director of missions for the Montgomery Baptist Association and member of the SBC Executive Committee; Jay Wolf, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church of Montgomery; and former Alabama pastor Alan Cross, who now pastors Petaluma Baptist Church in Petaluma, Calif.
Leading the Zoom conference was Bishop Kyle Searcy, senior pastor of Fresh Anointing House of Worship in Montgomery and an international church leader.
The statement, printed in full below, is also online at change.org.
Deep South Joint Statement on the Gospel, Racial Reconciliation, and Justice
As a group of racially, ethnically, and politically diverse church leaders in the Deep South areas of Charleston, SC, Montgomery, AL, and Mobile, AL, we recognize and lament how the historic nature of our cities and region contributed to racial oppression and division in our country. Each of our cities were centers of the slave trade in the Antebellum South as well as racial oppression and division through Jim Crow segregation. However, we now see growing networks of Christian pastors and churches from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds loving, praying, and serving together in their communities as they work together to follow Jesus in the midst of continuing challenges. It is from these historic cities that we speak.
When the very public killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 brought the nation to a crisis, our cities were affected too. The pain, the fear, and the trauma in our communities revealed a division that many hoped had been relegated to the past. We realize that the problems we face are broad, the division caused by sin goes deep, and the hearts and souls of our neighbors remain profoundly and justly hurt by this sin. To ignore this, or hope it will go away, is to become the indifferent priest in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
We believe that every person no matter what their color, culture, or creed is made in the image of God and because of that they have infinite worth, value, and dignity. As followers of Jesus, we believe every life is irreplaceable, unique, and valuable and that the pursuit of justice is absolutely essential as commanded by God throughout the Bible. Because of this, we believe that all followers of Jesus are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), value others above ourselves, and look not to our own interests, but to the interest of others (Philippians 2:3-4), and be peacemakers in the midst of personal and societal conflict (Matthew 5:9). Therefore,
We Confess that, too often, our churches and our leaders have focused more on keeping things comfortable than on making things right. We confess that, too often, people of color in our cities have borne alone the burden of contending for racial unity and of educating people in the community regarding issues of race and justice.
We Believe that the good news of Jesus mandates Christians to pursue a reconciliation that is centered on his redemptive work for humanity. Furthermore, we believe that in this specific moment, God is calling the church to respond in a way that acknowledges past and current sin, proclaims the good news of Jesus as the only source for true reconciliation and peace, and commits to strengthening our discipleship structures in order to bring about generational change.
We Commit to act locally in our own cities and region to sacrificially love our neighbors of all backgrounds, to lay down our lives for one another, to work for justice to right past wrongs, and to rebuild our ancient cultural and relational ruins and raise up the age-old foundations (Isaiah 58:12) of trust, peace, and integrity so that the church would be unified in love and concern for each member and for our communities regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural background, economic status, or zip code and so the church can give a witness to the watching world of the justice, love, right actions, and humility that should accompany followers of Jesus (Micah 6:8). We Invite Christians across the South and across America to join us in this endeavor to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) and to bring healing and unity to our long-standing divisions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' senior writer.