YDS Contingent Applauds Historic Joint Meeting of Four Black Denominations
By Ian Doescher, M.Div. '05
“It's about relationships and fellowship and camaraderie—that was a big part of why we were there—for the celebratory nature, coming together in faith.”
That is what the Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, M.Div. '83 and president of the Yale Divinity School Alumnal Board, had to say after attending the historic Jan. 23-27 meeting of four major black Baptist denominations in Nashville, TN. Walker-Smith was among several participants with YDS ties at the meeting, the first such gathering of the churches that grew out of rifts within the black Baptist tradition during the past century. Over 10,000 of the faithful—including dignitaries such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond—attended the event, which served as the Joint Midwinter Board Meeting of the four denominations: the National Baptist Convention USA (NBCUSA), the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (NMBCA).
Walker-Smith, a member of the NBCUSA and executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis, characterized the meeting as holding “a great deal of anxiety and excitement about the future” and representing “an opportunity to negotiate new partnerships.” Similarly, the Reverend Dr. James Evans, M.Div. '75, the Robert K. Davies Professor of Systematic Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, said, “It seemed providential that the time had come to set aside those issues that separated us that now, in hindsight, seem less significant. There are more pressing issues for the African American community, and the nation in general.”
Historically, the denominations had splintered over differences related to ownership and control of publishing operations, tenure for national church officers and civil disobedience—not over differences in doctrine or theology. All four of the denominations share membership in the National Council of Churches and, thus, on that level have come to the table together in broader ecumenical settings. “The interesting thing is that we've never split over theological differences,” remarked Jason Turner (NBCA), a current YDS student and President of the YDS Black Seminarians. “These are differences that can be overcome.”
At the Nashville meeting, the four conventions passed joint resolutions about several pressing issues, both global and domestic, including the worldwide AIDS epidemic—particularly in African countries and among peoples of African descent—and economic issues both for developing nations and for blacks in the United States. “I think it was great to have forums on these issues,” commented Turner, “but I would like to have seen more of an action plan; what are the ministries we're going to put into action based on these issues?” In fact, the stated purpose of the meeting was to forge a unified voice to address social and political issues affecting black people.
The meeting and its focus will have an impact on the black community far beyond the over 10 million members of the four conventions, predicted Walker-Smith, pointing out that virtually no black person is unaffected by one of the Baptist conventions: “Even if you're not in one of the conventions, your history or ancestry is there. It is a universal group—the majority of African Americans have had to interact with one Baptist convention or another in some way.” As President of the Alumnal Board, Walker-Smith was in a unique position to observe and get to know YDS graduates at the meeting. “Some of our graduates are the most prominent pastors in their conventions,” she said.
Walker-Smith, Evans and Turner all believe the Nashville meeting will prove to be significant. “These groups have not been together since 1880,” Walker-Smith observed. “They see this as part of a change—part of their place in the universal church and the ecumenical movement.” The presidents of all four of the black Baptist conventions were present at the meeting, and Evans pointed out that each had graduated from Bishop College in Dallas , allowing for a considerable level of camaraderie. Formal mergers among the four denominations are thought unlikely to occur, and Evans, a member of the PNBC and American Baptist Churches , suggested that strength can be derived from maintaining four separate identities even while working cooperatively together.
The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Smith, assistant professor of Christian education at YDS and a member of the NBCUSA, was not in Nashville for the gathering but, nonetheless, assessed it as “both an historic occasion and an opportunity for these influential Christian organizations to unite in a common faith, wisdom and hope for transforming the African American community and broader society.” She expressed hope that the meeting will help reclaim an activist posture in the black religious community.
Said Smith, “In an age when many African American churches have lost sight of their prophetic voice and active involvement in the struggle for justice and liberation not only for the black community, but for all who are oppressed, it is my hope that this gathering of Christian leaders will signal a united effort by the black church to reclaim her prophetic voice and engage once again in the struggle against injustice, oppression, violence, and all manner of destruction waged upon the human spirit.” Smith, who also has joint affiliation with American Baptist Churches, is currently working on a project documenting the black presence at YDS and in the wider theological education community.
The meeting's final address, delivered by the Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor, promises to be a moment to be remembered by all. “Dr. Taylor creates an interesting connection between this meeting and YDS,” noted Walker-Smith, “It was his idea, along with Reverend William Shaw (President of the NBCUSA), for the churches to meet together, and he gifted YDS years ago by delivering the Beecher Lectures.” Taylor 's closing remarks focused on President Bush's meeting earlier in the same week with black religious leaders. President Bush had met with several representatives of black churches identified by the administration as church “leaders,” but none of the presidents of the four major black Baptist conventions meeting in Nashville was invited to the meeting. “It was ironic that none of the people in the photos with President Bush had been elected by any church,” commented Evans, “and Reverend Taylor expressed consternation that someone else had handpicked the leaders of the African American community.” The message offered by Taylor was that the Baptist conventions must continue to be at the forefront of black issues and interests, setting the agenda for the future.
Organizers of the Nashville meeting hope that similar gatherings will continue to take place every three to four years and that a global meeting of black Baptists worldwide will occur within the next two years.