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Black Baptists Gather in Show of Unity

An estimated 10,000 African-American Baptist leaders gathered this week in Nashville, Tenn., for a historic joint board meeting of four major denominations.

“You cannot microwave ox tails,” Suzan Johnson Cook of Bronx Christian Fellowship in Bronx, N.Y., said Thursday describing the “kairos” moment brought about by the joint meeting of four major groups that have divided over various organizational and philosophical issues over the last 90 years.

While leaders of the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and National Missionary Baptist Convention of America aren’t predicting a formal merger, they hoped the four-day gathering that ended Thursday would be a first step in forging a unified voice to address social and political issues affecting all blacks.

“One of the affirmations of this gathering, to me, is that the things that divided us were not things that were really central to who we are as bodies in Christ,” said William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA.

The four groups represent about 13 million black Baptists across the nation.

“If there is any voice that is going to speak for America today, it has to be black Christian America,” Gardner Taylor, pastor emeritus of Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., said at a closing worship service Thursday night. “And you Baptists are the largest part of the black Christian community.”

Forest Harris, president of Nashville’s AmericanBibleCollege, called the summit “the most positive sign of progress to leverage the power of black religion in America for social change in several decades.”

“We’re having problems with the Republican Party–they don’t want us–and the Democrats don’t know what to do with us” said James Thomas of Nashville’s JeffersonStreetMissionaryBaptistChurch, quoted by the Associated Press.

While the meeting was officially non-partisan, speakers frequently criticized President Bush for policies they said hurt African Americans.

Shaw on Tuesday accused the Bush administration of leading the nation into the Iraq war under false pretenses and favoring the wealthy.

Shaw also accused Bush of using his faith to disguise his motives in the same way the devil cited Scripture in tempting Christ. “We bite into it and swallow not just the bait but also the hook,” Shaw said, as quoted by the Tennessean.

Marian Wright Edelman of Children’s Defense Fund called on politicians to put money into educational programs that need it, such as Head Start, a school-readiness initiative that targets the poorest children in the community.

She illustrated the plight of black children and the poor with a reference to the nation’s color-coded terrorism-alert system in which red indicates the highest risk. “I want you to know children and the poor are on red code alert,” she said, according to the NashvilleTennessean.

Jesse Jackson of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition was Thursday’s keynote speaker.

One leader dismissed President Bush’s Tuesday meeting with 23 African-American business and religious leaders, some who support his faith-based initiatives.

“All four of our leaders are here, and Mr. Bush did not meet with them,” he said.

Comparing Bush’s meeting with the small group black leaders to an Old Testament story where the people asked for a new leader to take them back to captivity in Egypt, the leader quipped, “Maybe Mr. Bush has a back-to-Egypt plan, and the leaders who are here aren’t in that plan.”

Black Baptist groups in America were once unified in the National Baptist Convention, which formed in 1895. The first split came over a dispute about ownership of the convention publishing house, which resulted in a court ruling and formation of the National Baptist Convention of America in 1915.

The next major split came in 1961 with formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, prompted by leadership issues and differences over activism by Martin Luther King. The last came in when the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America separated from the National Baptist Convention of America, again over a dispute involving the publishing house.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicDaily.com.