There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon – one black and one white. They sit almost back-to-back, separated by a small park, in a hilltop historic district overlooking downtown.
About 170 years ago they were one congregation, a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race.
Ever since – through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, desegregation and beyond – the division endured, becoming so deeply rooted it hardly drew notice.
Then, two years ago, the Rev. Scott Dickison, pastor of the white church, and the Rev. James Goolsby, pastor of the black church, met over lunch and an idea took shape: They’d try to find a way the congregations, neighbors for so long, could become friends. They’d try to bridge the stubborn divide of race.
They are taking up this work against a tumultuous backdrop, including the much-publicized deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Next month, they will lead joint discussions with church members on racism in the nation’s history and in the history of their congregations.
“This is not a conversation of blame, but of acceptance and moving forward,” Goolsby said.
The segregated hour
Like many American institutions, houses of worship have largely been separated by race, to the point that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called Sunday mornings “one of the most segregated hours.” Recently, several denominations, from the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, have tried to look critically at their past actions going back centuries.
In the early 1800s, in Baptist churches of the South, whites and blacks often worshiped together, but blacks were restricted to galleries or to the back of the sanctuary. Eventually, black populations started growing faster in many communities. Whites, made uneasy by the imbalance, responded by splitting the congregations.
This was apparently the case for First Baptist in Macon, which built a separate church for blacks in 1845, then finalized the separation two decades later.
Dickison – who grew up in Charlotte’s Providence Baptist Church and received his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University – and Goolsby said their respective churches were enthusiastic about plans to work together under the auspices of the New Baptist Covenant, an organization formed by former President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists.
Yet excitement mixed with apprehension, since the effort would inevitably require “some challenging conversations,” Dickison said, including a re-examination of the official church history, which had been recorded in mostly benign terms, with almost no recognition of racism.
“We need to go through this kind of conversion experience of confession, of repentance and of reconciliation. We need to have that when it comes to race, not just in the country but within the church,” Dickison said.
Goolsby recalled that after the massacre last year at the historic black church in Charleston, S.C., he was outside a store, awaiting his wife, when Dickison called.
“Scott shared how he felt, how he was struggling with what he would share with his congregation,” Goolsby said. Dickson asked how he could show support.
“I said, ‘We’re already doing it,’ ” Goolsby said. “The mere fact he thought to call me was huge.”
The stakes were even more personal months later, when the white church invited black church members for a youth trip to Orlando.
Goolsby’s teenage son was among those invited. But Goolsby had considered Florida a danger ever since Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old, was fatally shot in Sanford by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
The pastor could not let his son go on the trip. “If you put a hoodie on him,” he said, “he looks just like Trayvon.”
The concerns of anxious black parents had been much in the news, but the white church members hadn’t had to confront the issue directly until Goolsby raised it.
After reassurances from a white chaperone, Goolsby allowed his son and the other young people to participate.
“The fact that that was so easy to share – we’ve already made progress,” Goolsby said.
Racism a ‘cancer’
Dickison strode into the basement hall of his church with a box under one arm. Inside, were copies of “Strength to Love,” a collection of sermons and writings by King. The book was at the center of classes at the white church that Dickison organized in preparation for the joint talks on racism next month.
This class was held on the Sunday in July after the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the fatal ambush on white Dallas police officers.
With the stifling humidity of a Georgia summer building outside, Dickison launched into a discussion of King’s sermon on the Good Samaritan, about despised groups and showing mercy.
“We have our tribes. We see ourselves over and against others,” he said, then asked church members to reflect.
One man said when you reach out to someone from another group, “you’re perceived as unpatriotic,” or disloyal. A woman said she was upset to see some disrespect of the police. “They rush toward danger when others run,” she said.
The next night, the black church hosted the city’s Black Lives Matter vigil, marking the tragedies of the preceding week.
Clergy from across the city filled the pulpit. Goolsby and Dickison stood together to speak. Dickison compared racism to “a cancer that roams inside the body of this nation, and yes, even in the body of Christ.” Goolsby urged people to maintain hope “in spite of our circumstances,” and he added, “We know there will be change.”
Then both men said, “Amen.”
Examples of progress
How some Christian organizations are handling race issues:
Southern Baptist Convention: The denomination founded in 1845 in support of slaveholding has recently made a priority of addressing racism. In 2012, the convention elected its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter. The Southern Baptist public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has been holding talks and conferences for pastors on the Gospel and racial reconciliation. And over the past year, pastors from the 15.5 million-member denomination and a major black Baptist group, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., started a public conversation about fighting racism. At the Southern Baptist Convention meeting last June, delegates voted to repudiate use of the Confederate flag.
Episcopal Church: The church, which has been the spiritual home of many Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents, last year voted to put more resources behind combating racism. The 1.8 million-member denomination also elected its first black leader, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Dioceses have been holding anti-racism training and some are researching their historic links to slavery. The Diocese of Rhode Island plans a museum in its cathedral that will examine the church’s involvement with the slave trade.
Presbyterian Church in America: At its meeting last June, the nation’s second-largest Presbyterian group issued a detailed apology for its past bigotry, repenting sins “committed during the civil rights era,” past teachings that the Bible condoned slavery and discouraged interracial marriage, “participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations,” and its “continuing racial sins.” The denomination was formed in 1973 mostly by Southern churches that wanted to preserve their theologically conservative approach to Scripture, but who were also opposed to desegregation, according to Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University and columnist for Religion News Service.