EDITOR’S NOTE — In November 2023, Alabama Baptists will celebrate a huge milestone — 200 years of doing ministry together since the first group gathered and decided they could do more together than they could apart. To read more about the bicentennial celebration, click here.
Charles Carter remembers vividly the night 10 hooded Ku Klux Klansmen came in the back door of his church, walked to the front, put a $10 bill in the offering plate, prayed a white supremacist prayer and left.
“As a pastor and as a Christian, it made me very, very angry,” said Carter, who is white.
It was 1955, and two weeks before, Carter — then pastor of a small church in Chilton County — had gotten a call from a young African American pastor in the area asking if he could come to a biweekly youth event Carter and other pastors hosted.
“He said, ‘We’ve heard about what you are doing, and we’d like to start something like that for the African American young people in this county, but we don’t know what to do,’” Carter said. “He asked if he could come and observe, and I said, ‘It would be a delight to have you there.’”
Carter welcomed the young pastor at the event, told the crowd about the ministry he was hoping to start and then asked him to come up and lead in prayer for God to move through that ministry.
And two weeks later, Carter’s church had those unexpected guests show up at the Saturday night youth meeting. For Carter, it was a gut punch — and a gut check about what was going on in his area when it came to race relations. He stayed up all night working on a sermon called “God is No Respecter of Persons,” and he preached it the next morning on his countywide radio show.
“I told the whole county exactly what had happened,” he said. “I was overwhelmed with anger. From that sermon I got hate mail, threats, everything you could imagine. But it got the word out to the county how bad the situation was.”
And it started Carter on a journey to do everything he could to help bring reconciliation between the races in his state and in the larger Southern Baptist world.
In the 1960s, things were beginning to shift in the U.S. and in the South especially. Evangelist Billy Graham’s 1964 Easter Rally at Legion Field in Birmingham was an integrated meeting, and after he held a weeklong crusade the following year in Montgomery, many Alabama Baptist churches established open door policies to officially welcome everyone.
In 1971, when Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham brought Carter to preach in view of a call, he told them right away that if an African American person wanted to join the church, he would welcome them.
Carter said one man — Gaines S. Dobbins, a prominent Southern Baptist educator — stood up and said, “Pastor, we would not call anyone as our preacher who did not feel exactly as you have just expressed.”
The congregation applauded and voted Carter in unanimously, but it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be struggles. Two years later when Shades Mountain Baptist received its first black member, a husband and wife who were good friends of Carter and his wife, Janice, left the church. When asked why, they said they hadn’t believed Carter was serious when he said he would welcome black members.
“I wrote them a long letter and told them how much I loved them and would love them forever … and said if you can find a church anywhere who preaches the gospel and a ‘whosoever will’ invitation but at the same time knowingly rejects people because of the color of their skin, I hope you join it,” Carter said.
It took them a while, but they did find that church and request their letter from Shades Mountain, Carter said. The culture in Alabama Baptist life still had a long way to go when it came to race relations, but it was changing, he said.
In 1995, Carter chaired the Resolutions Committee that urged the Southern Baptist Convention to pursue racial reconciliation and denounce racism. It was a significant milestone, but he told the reporters who interviewed him that “the easiest thing about racial reconciliation we can do is what we have just done — pass a resolution.”
The real issue, Carter said at the time, would be what everyone did when they got home.
As he drove back to Alabama from Atlanta after the conference, he made a commitment to God that he would be intentional about building relationships with African American pastors. And he kept his word.
His friendship with one pastor turned into a long-standing partnership where the two swapped pulpits, spoke at each other’s church, worked together to help the inner city and saw their congregations become good friends.
Carter said he wanted to do the best he could “to be an instrument of reconciliation on a one-on-one basis.”
D’Linell Finley — who is pastor of Southlawn Baptist Church in Montgomery and is black — said although Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists have “a long way to go in terms of racial reconciliation and bringing our people together,” he recognizes that a lot of progress has been made over the decades.
Learning to lead with love
“At one time, the Southern Baptist Convention was exclusively a white convention, and not only that but a white convention that favored slavery and slave ownership,” Finley said. “I think by and large the convention has put forth an effort in terms of racial reconciliation.”
His wish for today is that Alabama Baptists would be known as leaders in loving people who look different and maybe think differently than they do, in regard to both skin color and political views. Division still exists in a lot of areas that it doesn’t have to, he said.
Scars and healing
But the way Alabama Baptists are able to talk openly about racial reconciliation and advocate for it is not something that would have been done in the 1950s, and that is significant, Finley said.
The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions started making real moves in this direction with the addition of H.O. Hester in 1961 to head the department of special missions. Hester worked hard in that role to improve race relations.
And across the state today, Baptist churches are seeing reconciliation happen. Multiracial church plants like Imago Dei Church at the 45 in Lowndes County are serving as a picture of Christ’s love in areas where race relations are fractured and in need of healing.
In other places, churches like Chisholm Baptist Church and Flatline Church at Chisholm in Montgomery — a predominantly white congregation and a predominantly black congregation — are seeing God work as they share a building and do ministry together.
Dewayne Rembert, Flatline’s pastor, said God has done some amazing work in the two churches’ lives, but the reality is he still sees the scars of the past every day as he does ministry in the community.
He and others at the church have reached out regularly to one elderly African American woman in the neighborhood. She can point out the tree where a deacon in her church was hung years ago.
“He was hung by other church men at a big church in Montgomery, and after they finished hanging him, they went right to church,” Rembert said. “We’ve been and witnessed to her, but she hasn’t been to church in years, not since that happened.”
Those stories of trauma aren’t uncommon, he said.
But Rembert says he’s seeing healing happen as Chisholm Baptist has worked alongside Flatline to serve meals to the surrounding neighborhood and the greater Chisholm community. He’s seen white members of Chisholm and other partnering churches become like team moms to the football players at the predominantly black local high school.
Carter says over the years, he’s seen that kind of healing happen more and more too. He’s spoken as often as he’s been able to on the Scripture passages he used in that sermon he preached on the radio in 1955 — Acts 10 and 17, James 2, John 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:19.
In 2000, he reconstructed that sermon for a chapter called “God Shows No Favoritism” in a book titled “A Mighty Long Journey: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation” edited by Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, and Robert Smith Jr., a preaching professor and the namesake of Beeson’s preaching institute.
Smith, who is African American, is one of Carter’s closest friends. In a chapter called “Shattering Wall and Veil,” Smith wrote these words: “It is impossible for us to love God and not love one another, and it is impossible for us to be in community with God and not be in community with one another.”
“We must see each other,” he wrote, “as fellow humans.”
In 1998, a couple of years before that book was published, Carter went back to Chilton County to preach a revival at another church there, and while he was there, they welcomed their first black member.
At the end of the service, Carter told them the story of the KKK members who had visited his church 43 years before, and then he said this — “Folks, this is progress, but it’s altogether too slow.”
Alabama has definitely moved forward since then, he said — but it’s up to everybody to keep moving toward greater unity.
After all, Carter said — that’s what Christ called us to.