Monday, November 07, 2005

The Altar Of Integration

Word comes from today's Nashville City Paper that First Baptist Church, Downtown (on Broadway) may be an unwilling candidate for relocation. The city has designs on expanding the convention center (an issue I don't have enough investment to take a stand on) and the 120-year-old church may stand in the way.

I've never attended FBC Downtown but, as long as I've known of it, it has been symbolic for me of the Civil Rights Movement. And its symbolic freight is not very positive. You see, author Will Campbell tells the story of Kelly Miller Smith, the renowned late Pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill (on James Robertson Parkway), who was one of the first black Nashvillians to send his six-year-old daughter to the "altar of integration," that is, to go with the first group of black children facing the angry white mobs in order to enroll in public school (but that's another story).

Pastor Smith, who basically hosted the Nashville arm of the Civil Rights Movement out of FBC, Capitol Hill, approached the Pastor of FBC, Downtown in the 1960s about bringing the two congregations together permanently under one church roof as a single, integrated, multi-racial congregation ministering to Nashville. He was politely but firmly rebuffed and told that it was better that the two churches fulfilled their two missions separately.

So, I don't have much sympathy for FBC, Downtown--which pictures on their website show to be still exclusively lilly-white--because it stands a symbol to me of segregation and racial tension in the Civil Rights Era.

That may or may not be a fair treatment of today's FBC, Downtown, but I have a suggestion for the church leaders to overcome such negative stereotypes. Think of a possible relocation because of convention center expansion as a second chance to seize missed opportunities at racial reconciliation in the Downtown area. Have your Pastor contact the current Pastor of FBC, Capitol Hill and see if there is a chance to re-start talks that Kelly Miller Smith initiated toward the two congregations joining 40 years ago. If you have to relocate, why not look into available properties on James Robertson Parkway at or near FBC, Capitol Hill? If there aren't any currently available, go into re-location talks with Metro asking if real estate opportunities to join with FBC, Capitol Hill might be opened up from Metro's end.

Above all embrace re-location as a means of bringing together in faith what hatred had put asunder. That would go a long way to rescuing the reputations of southern white Baptists who choose to worship separately from the black fellowship. Kelly Miller Smith showed us that faith requires altar sacrifices; are white Baptists willing to sacrifice their pride of place on the altar of integration?


  1. It saddens me to see one piece of the history of First Baptist Church (7th & Broad) used as a bludgeon to somehow justify/rationalize a land-grab-forced relocation. There is so much positive history associated with that location not the least of which included the ordination of Nelson Merry, Nashville's first Black minister. If you choose to use segregation and/or segregationist attitutes from the 1960's as a barometer for which churches should remain standing, I would suggest that there are cathedrals, synagogues, and houses of worship from many denominations that would be in peril.

    If the city wants the land where First Baptist Church has stood for the last 185 years, then let's call this a real estate deal and not some effort to right any wrongs of the past.

    One more thing. To be fair, there is an equivalent amount of 'diversity' in the images posted on the First Baptist Capitol Hill web site. And for the record, neither First Baptist Church 7th & Broad nor First Baptist Capitol Hill are segregated in spite of the images on the respective web pages.

  2. As I said, I neither advocate Metro's reported interest in taking land to expand the center (else I would have advanced an argument on the merits of Metro taking both that land and McKendree's land) nor do I have any sympathies for First Baptist Church, which has to accept the bad parts of its history and to redeem them if it is worth its salt as a truly Christian church. So, I wasn't trying to bludgeon in order to rationalize land-grabs.

    Your charge suggests an unspoken political agenda that I don't have. I was straightforwardly saying from a theological perspective, FBC, Downtown, like most white Baptist churches in the south has a century of discrimination to live down. That history is encapsulated for me in the rebuff to FBC, Capitol Hill. I'm not sure that ordaining a Black minister for the SBC counterbalances that history. And I don't disagree that many houses of worship must live down such histories. But I am Southern Baptist and feel quite qualified to speak theologically to Southern Baptist sins.

    As far as the differences in diversity between the two websites: I agree that churches black and white continue to be the most segregated institutions in society by choice. The difference is that the segregation was backed up for decades by white prejudice against blacks. Blacks were relegated at one time to back balconies and then run completely out of white churches. If there is a lack of diversity in black churches it is not because whites in general ever moved to join black churches and were then asked to leave. Even after public segregation disappears, you can't deny the long-term affects of intimidation by one group of people on another.

    Kelly Miller Smith made the first overture toward FBC Downtown; if FBC Downtown finds one door closing in the near future by decisions it may not have power over, why can't it open another more redemptive door to absolve old sins?

  3. I feel that we can agree that a man's sin's can haunt him for years and fester into all manner of ills...but then there is a concept that I embrace as a life-long Southern Baptist called 'forgiveness'. If you wish to focus your indignation against First Baptist Church as a symbol of the evils of segregation, you do so by personal choice. These two churches have wonderful ministries and continue a history of positive influence in Nashville (as do many other congregations/denominations in Nashville). I trust that they can and will make decisions based on ministries that are lead by God are welcome, however, to advise either of the congregations as to what you feel is best for them from your perspective. I am confident that Dr.Frank Lewis would give you a hearing (664-6010)...I can only imagine how excited Victor Singletary would be to hear from you (255-8757).

    As for 'absolving old sins'...I wonder who you believe gets to decide when that has happened?