By Jeff Brumley
Two Baptist churches that began as one in pre-Civil War Georgia and eventually split — enslaved people to one congregation, slaveholders to the other — are reviving their relationship by cooperating in worship, fellowship and ministry.
Channeling that unity-through-service approach is the covenant of action that ministers and lay leaders from First Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Christ, both in Macon, Ga., will sign during a joint worship service on Sunday.
The document is part of a movement formally launched in the past year by the New Baptist Covenant to inspire churches, statewide fellowships and others to embrace ministries that foster racial reconciliation.
It’s obvious the pastors of the two churches are of one mind — and vocabulary — about the unfolding unity between the congregations located in downtown Macon.
“It has amazed me how organic the whole process has been and how naturally it has flowed,” said James Goolsby, pastor of First Baptist Church, a member of the National Baptist Convention USA.
“All of this came together pretty organically,” said Scott Dickison, pastor at First Baptist Church of Christ, which is aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
‘Both of us were blown away’
If the two ministers share a common vocabulary it may be because their churches share a unique and common history.
According to Dickison, the two began as one congregation in the late 1820s, with slave owners, slaves and freedmen sharing worship space in the one-story structure.
But as the number of slaves and freed blacks began to outnumber whites, they eventually moved into their own building.
The one church, two buildings approach continued until after the Civil War when a formal split occurred, Dickison said.
“A lot of bizarre history” occurred between the two until the two churches all but lost the memory of the “more or less” integrated history, Dickison said.
“There had been a pulpit exchange in the ’70s, and in 2001 we worshiped together though few remembered it,” he said.
Not long after Dickison arrived at First Baptist Church of Christ in 2012, he and Goolsby set about trying to revive the connection between their churches.
Eventually, the idea of entering into a covenant of action arose and both men saw the possibilities. But would their members?
“Both of us were blown away by how excited our congregations were,” Dickison said.
‘Time for us to step up’
Excitement for the covenants of action process is being expressed around the country, said Hannah McMahan, coordinator of the New Baptist Covenant.
The program’s big launch this year, following a pilot year with four covenants, was launched at the CBF’s General Assembly last June in Atlanta.
Already there are 15 to 20 covenant agreements with another two dozen pending this year, McMahan said.
The NBC expects to have 100 in place across the United States by 2018, she added.
The covenants are multi-cultural partnerships between two churches which agree to tackle difficult social issues in their shared communities.
Covenants have been between black and white churches, black churches and Hispanic churches, and Native Americans and African-Americans.
The concept is rooted in Jesus’ words, from Luke 4: 18-19, proclaiming the good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind.
Projects undertaken so far range from taking on predatory lending and community revitalization to education and access to nutritional foods, McMahan said.
“It’s time for us to step up to claim that voice so we can be that city on the hill and show society we can come together,” she said.
‘Beyond the walls we worship in’
Goolsby said he never heard of the covenants before Dickison drew his attention to them.
It only took a little bit of research for him to see how important it could be for his congregation and for the community. Attending the NBC summit in Atlanta in January sealed it.
“It was a call to arms for me,” Goolsby said.
The covenant of action between First Baptist and First Baptist Church of Christ calls for the two congregations to worship together consistently in order to understand each other’s’ worship styles, Goolsby said.
The agreement also includes more intentional fellowship time — activities outside church and worship that fosters camaraderie, he said.
“And three is to make a difference in our school system,” he said.
Public schools in Macon are underfunded and many students come from homes that do not prepare them for learning, Goolsby said.
Starting this summer the two churches will be giving away books and spreading the word about the churches’ availability to teachers, students and families, he said. Tutoring and mentoring will begin when school begins in the fall.
Goolsby said the agreement will help both congregations live more authentically into their individual callings while also building on their shared history.
“It is a more natural fit for both our ministries,” he said. “This is about the fellowship of the body of Christ and about taking action beyond the walls that we worship in.”