The Rev. Marcus Glass gladly accepted the invitation for his congregation to share space with Raleigh White Baptist Church in Albany.
His New Seasons Church, launched on Easter 2015, was growing. In a few years, the predominantly African-American congregation had increased from 12 to 130 members.
It was just the opposite for Raleigh White Baptist Church. Its membership had dwindled over the years and now consisted of 20 or so white members, most of whom are at least 60 years of age, said a regional Baptist official.
However, the relationship quickly soured, in such a way that the Mallary Baptist Association removed Raleigh White from its roster of congregations, citing racism. It was the first time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board that a church has been disassociated because of racial animosity.
The endeavor started with good intentions.
“We thought it would be a good relationship because we were coming in a Christian context,” said New Seasons’ Glass, 43. “These people were Christian and we figured all Christians have love for everybody.”
However, it didn’t work out that way. Despite several attempts at intervention, things got so bad that on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Mallory Baptist Association ousted Raleigh White.
Members of Raleigh White could not be reached for comment. However, the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Ronnie Kinsaul, told WALB-TV that he prays current church officials will repent and be restored to the association.
The recommendation to disassociate Raleigh White includes a pathway to reinstatement “if the church openly repents of their sin against the other church and demonstrates the genuineness of repentance.”
Kinsaul, who left in December, said he has love for both churches.
“It’s very disappointing that some have apparently made no progress after 50 years,” said J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which has 3,600 churches and 1.4 million members. “Jesus taught us to love one another. In John 15:17, Jesus said, ‘This I command you, that you love one another.’ There are no exceptions to Jesus’ command. The Georgia Baptist Mission Board cannot and will not tolerate racism. It is incompatible with what we believe.”
Glass said members of Raleigh White complained about New Seasons’ members using church property like the gym, fellowship hall and classrooms for activities. He said members got “mean looks” from white churchgoers. At least once, during a summer program for students, some members of Raleigh White turned out the lights. Glass said some members of Raleigh White complained when his church used the facility as a relief center for victims of a 2017 tornado.
Things came to a head on March 18 when Raleigh White Baptist Church was celebrating its homecoming. New Seasons was to start services at 11:30 a.m. New Seasons was told they could not start their service until later in the afternoon. They compromised to an earlier time. Still not everyone got the word. When members and visitors showed up, they were told they couldn’t come in. One member was allegedly told she couldn’t enter the building to use the restroom.
“We really wanted to address this in a redemptive way,” said Hans Wunch, associational missionary for the Mallary Baptist Association, one of 92 associations — a local collection of churches that make up the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “We reached out to deacons and other employees of the church, but they chose not to heed any advice. This was a bad situation. Beyond optics, it was bad, period. It became very evident to our leadership that the older congregation was mistreating the church … and it appeared that it was happening because of racial biases.”
There’s no doubt in Glass’ mind it was based on race.
“I’m from Mississippi. I know the kind of looks people can give you,” he said. “People ignore you when you speak to them. I didn’t expect that attitude. I thought they would be happy we were extending the ministry not only in our name but their name too.”
It’s not lost on Glass that this incident happened in Albany, which was the scene of one of the first mass desegregation movements in the modern struggle for civil rights. The Albany Movement, which began in November 1961, resulted in the arrests of more than 1,000 African-Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined the movement later, and the young minister was among those jailed. He later applied the lessons learned in Albany to other battleground cities such as Birmingham.
“This is historic simply because this is the place where the movement tried to start and some thought of it as a failure,” said Glass, who is moving his church to another location. “What’s happened now is that we’ve pushed past failure. I think it’s pivotal that this happened on the eve of Dr. King’s last speech. Our association used its voice to not just denounce racism but take action.”
In recent years, the powerful and historically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has come face to face with its racial past. In 1995, the convention formally apologized for the church’s support of slavery and segregation.
Evangelicals, though, overwhelmingly supported the election of President Donald Trump.
The Southern Baptists are trying to grow their membership “because the rural white base that has historically been the biggest part of their membership is no longer growing,” said David W. Key, former director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He said they must build a multicultural membership “in order to maintain their institutional strength.”
African-American churches also represent one of the fastest-growing segments of Georgia Baptists.
Some say there are signs that’s changing with several recent events including the disfellowship of the Albany church and the passage of a resolution at the convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix last June to denounce “every form of racism, including alt-right supremacy,” as counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The leadership had not planned to vote on the issue, but that changed under intense pressure from messengers — members who can vote on issues at the national convention — led by the Rev. Dwight McKissic Sr., senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
“At the moment, I feel very encouraged and optimistic that the Southern Baptists may be genuinely shifting to a more biblical position regarding race,” said McKissic. “There is a younger generation, a more enlightened generation of Southern Baptists who recognize the theological and practical racism in the convention, and they’re ready to turn over a new leaf. They don’t have 100 percent support, but I think they have majority support at this point.”
Earlier this week, 4,000 people attended a conference in Memphis, hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Gospel Coalition, honoring King on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Discussion centered on the church’s failure to address racism and racial justice.
“Time and time again in the white American Bible Belt, the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow because you cannot serve both,” said ERLC President Russell Moore, according to a story in the Baptist Press. “And tragically many often chose to serve Jim Crow and to rename him Jesus Christ.”
“That was a major paradigm shift in addressing critical black issues from a redemptive point of view on police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline and education in public schools,” said McKissic.
New Seasons is part of a national network of churches headed by Pastor A.B. Vines of San Diego.
He, too, sent people to intervene, but nothing worked.
“For the first church to be disfellowshipped from the Southern Baptist Convention to be in Albany is ironic,” Vines said. “No one else could write this story better than God. It’s incredible that people had the guts to do this, especially in this toxic environment. I’m saddened by it, but I’m happy they followed the word of God and not tradition.”