More than two years ago, the congregation where I attend with my family—First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon—began a series of activities with our neighbors at First Baptist Church, which gets a street designation, that we call New Street. Like many southern towns, there are two First Baptist Churches and in the bi-racial way the South worked one had black members and one had white members. While today our congregation has some African American members, the racial split remains. Our pastors, Rev. James Goolsby and Rev. Scott Dickison, talked with one another and from their friendship our congregations have begun an important journey that we hope will lead to reconciliation but not a merger.
Easter egg hunts and Thanksgiving dinners are good starts, but there is an obvious elephant in the room when we meet. The racial division is not simply about who sits in what seats, but we are also divided on how to approach social issues like public schools in Macon and the Black Lives Matter movement. Racial issues surround us and our conversations. James and Scott decided it was time last summer to start having conversations about race between the two congregations. I served with a team of six folks from both congregations along with the pastors to craft a series of discussions between the two congregations. At the conclusion of the three meetings, CBS’s James Brown came to town to do a piece on the work that ran on CBS This Morning show and CBS Evening News. (In full disclosure, my wife and son are part of the panel interviewed in the videos.)
It is clear, however, that we have little to risk in these conversations. There may have been a chance at hurt feelings or painful words but little beyond being uncomfortable. As these conversations unfolded last fall, Georgetown University announced the reality we all probably knew but refused to acknowledge: humans as property assets can be used to keep institutions alive. The sale of 272 slaves by the Jesuits to keep its fledging college going jared our senses about how deep slavery ran into religious organizations’ financial health. This issue was bigger than using slave labor to build buildings, something we have begun to talk about in the past several decades. The dollar value of an enslaved person could be used as collateral or part of a lien/mortgage. As the news broke, I began to think about the ways that three of First Baptist Church of Christ’s four buildings in Macon might have slave money attached to their land purchase or construction. For the past week, I have been doing preliminary work to see if there are any connections.
The written church history identifies the first members (only the men’s names are listed) and four of the five families held slaves. If I include a known trustee but not listed founder, there were five of the six families with enslaved persons numbering from one to twelve in each of the five families. I am still in the process of tracking down whether any of the slaves were part of the mortgaging of the building of the first church building, which in a note of irony sat on the property of the present-day county courthouse and was lost after a Macon bank failed. I am also intrigued by the possibility that when the Baptist Church of Macon spun out an independent black congregation in 1845 there may have been financial implications for the enslaved members and their families who were gaining a new church building. I am early in the process and cannot say whether there will be any stark revelations like the one at Georgetown. If there is, however, it raises important questions for our congregation and our responses will play a significant role in how we move toward reconciliation.
Update 3/14/17 2:03 p.m. EDT: Scott Dickison preached a sermon this past Sunday that began with Montgomery’s police chief, Chief Murphy, apologizing to John Lewis for the treatment the Freedom Riders experienced when passing through Montgomery, where the police didn’t even bother to show up as the riders were attacked. What makes the apology so moving is that Murphy had not even been born yet; he played no role in the events. Sometimes we have to apologize not for our actions but the actions of our forbearers. Scott then talked about the research I have done on the subject of slavery and our congregation. He followed the sermon on Sunday with a blog post on the church’s website. It is difficult to look at the wound, but as Scott said using the Sufi poet Rumi: the wound is where the light comes in.