A little context goes a long way

A Mississippi church’s refusal to allow a black couple to marry in its sanctuary has made national headlines, from ABC News to Reuters.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper known for its strong reporting on civil rights issues, has provided extensive coverage.

But it was an Associated Press report on the rejected wedding ceremony that caught my attention this week. The top of the story:

CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — Townspeople prayed for racial reconciliation Monday, but the black man whose wedding was rejected by a predominantly white Southern Baptist church in this small Mississippi town said he wasn’t ready to let racism be swept under the rug.

“Prayer works, but only if you want it to work, only if you want it to work in your heart” said Charles Wilson, the groom. “There are some that won’t change and I accept that. But I won’t stop talking about it. We’re still hurt.”

As 150 residents sweltered in a park beside a railroad track, their song of praise was drowned out by a southbound Canadian National freight train. The scene was today’s South writ small, a place where a lot of things have changed but where the pain of the old hurts can still flare anew.

Wilson and his bride Te’Andrea were to be married at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs on July 21. But after their rehearsal two nights before, the church’s pastor sought to move the service, saying some congregants didn’t want two black people to get married in the orange-brick sanctuary.

After reading the opening paragraphs, I was curious to see if AP would (a) provide any background on the Southern Baptist Convention electing its first black president just weeks ago and (b) go to the trouble of explaining the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist congregations.

Both details are pretty crucial to a national news report such as this, don’t you think?

AP passed the test on both counts, I am pleased to report.

From the story:

Southern Baptist leaders called Monday for the church to reject racism. Baptist churches are autonomous, so they want the congregation to chart its own course.

Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention board, said the organization was praying for the church and is ready to help. William Perkins, a spokesman for the group, said the church has not contacted state officials.

“Mississippi Baptists both reject racial discrimination and at the same time respect the autonomy of our local churches to deal with difficulties and disagreements under the lordship of Jesus,” Futral said in a statement.

The reference to Southern Baptist leaders followed by the quote from the Mississippi Baptist official made me wonder if the reporter was confusing the national leadership with the state association.

But a national spokesman is quoted as the report proceeds:

After being slow to reach out across racial lines, Southern Baptists have made increasing efforts in that direction in the past two decades. Nationwide, about 19 percent of 45,000 Southern Baptist churches are majority-minority, including 3,500 that are majority black.

Earlier this year, the convention elected its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. At the same meeting, delegates voted to give churches the option of calling themselves Great Commission Baptist churches, for those who wish to break free of the baggage of the Southern Baptist name and reach more followers.

“We are all saddened when any sin, including the sin of racism, rears its head,” said Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Sing Oldham. “Part of our gospel is that we are being redeemed. We are flawed, failed creatures and redemption is a process.”

Nice job by AP of providing relevant background and context in a relatively short daily news report.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I would really have liked to see a quote from one of the people who objected, or even some explanation of why it was an issue. It seems really strange, especially in Mississippi which has worked hard to shed its image as Klanville. As it is, we have only the pastor’s assertion that the problem was racism. None of the shadowy “minority” was even named, let alone quoted.

    One thing in the C-L story jumped out at me:

    “Prior to this, I had been telling people how nice they were here,” Wilson said. “It makes you re-evaluate things. We were doing everything right. We wanted to get married.(Emphasis mine)

    Am I the only one who sees a ghost in that? Those last couple of sentences sound like the words of a cohabiting couple making their relationship right. That would be a sticking point for some churches. Maybe I’m making a wild-[heinied] guess, but is there any possibility that the couple wasn’t turned away because of skin shade?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Good questions, Joel.

    From everything I’ve read (which may not be everything), the people who objected did so behind the scenes, and nobody is willing to be quoted on the record about being a racist.

    Again, everything I’ve read (which may not be everything) indicates that it’s a racial issue at a church that has not allowed blacks to wed in its sanctuary in 100-plus years.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, thanks for highlighting this story. You answered a couple of questions that I had. In stories like this, it’s important to understand the relationship between an individual church and the state and national organization especially given the vast diversity between Christian denominations.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks, Jerry.

  • sari

    The AP wrote a splendid and well-balanced article, one which gave the reader insight into the workings of the Southern Baptist Convention and its constituent churches. I thought the journalist could have pushed the pastor harder, since it was he who chose to acquiesce to congregants’ demands.

    In an earlier thread, journalist Mark Krzos was castigated for being a bigot against people who failed to share his opinions. While he demonstrated an unhealthy bias, one which would render suspect anything he wrote on the topic of religion or local culture, this article shows the flip side: many, many supposedly religious people in the deep South still hold tightly to racist beliefs.

    Here and elsewhere, the virtues of conservative Christians are extolled while institutionalized bigotry is ignored or denied. Living as a minority in the Deep South or in the Heartland, and by that I mean as a person of color, a non-Christian, or as one born outside the United States, is very different from belonging to a different church. Balance will be achieved only when all journalists can remain objective about people with who they agree and with whom they disagree, their co-religionists and those from other backgrounds.


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