By Bob Allen
Racial reconciliation can occur not only between individuals but also by way of transforming mission partnerships, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastor said Jan. 15 at a conference for diverse Baptist groups in Atlanta.
Jason Coker, pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn., described Delta Hands for Hope, a rural poverty initiative he started in his hometown of Shaw, Miss., as “a center of transformation” in a panel discussion at the Jan. 14-15 New Baptist Covenant Summit on the campus of Emory University.
“We’re very intentional about talking partnership and partnership transformation,” Coker said.
“We don’t need outside groups to come in and help us,” Coker explained. “We need folks to work with us, because there are incredible leaders in Shaw, Mississippi, that have been doing good work for decades. We want to introduce these incredible leaders to other incredible leaders from all over the country.”
Coker, recorder for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, started the ministry as a way to give back to the Mississippi Delta community that nurtured him as one of the few poor white kids in a public school system that is overwhelmingly black.
Early on, Coker arranged a meeting of black and white community leaders to map assets. It was one of the most integrated gatherings in Shaw’s history, he said, and one of the first times that members of the two groups were able to see themselves as equal partners in building a better future for the children of their community.
Volunteer mission teams from First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, traveled to Shaw to help out with projects like downtown beautification. While working side-by-side with residents, Pastor Leroy Woods of the Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church in Shaw and a member of the Delta Hands for Hope mentioned his church was considering a mission trip and asked if volunteers could come to Waco to help with their local missions projects.
“Now we have mission teams coming out of Shaw, but also understanding that it starts in Shaw,” Coker said.
One of the most surprising partnerships, Coker said, began with his chance meeting of a stranger in town who introduced herself as a member of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the process of opening a tutoring center for small children in Shaw.
“These three retired nuns from Ireland felt God called them to rural poverty in Shaw, Mississippi,” Coker said. “They bought a house in Shaw and moved to Shaw and opened a tutoring center because they felt God called them to do it. They are one of our primary partners in Shaw.”
“The Presentation Sisters are just incredible human beings,” he said. “We started crying in that little drug store about if God’s calling three nuns from Ireland to Shaw, Mississippi, we’ve got to be a part of that.”
Coker said transformation in Shaw is happening in all kinds of ways. Local pastors are excited, and so are the local schools. Churches in the surrounding area are coming to Shaw. The churches in Shaw are working together in a way they never have before, and racial reconciliation is happening in the process.
A couple of years ago, Coker said, the white Methodist Church agreed to open its building for a community-wide Vacation Bible School. After generations of exclusion, the African-American community was “Christian enough” to accept the offer.
“For the first time in the history of the town there is an integrated Vacation Bible School,” Coker said. “The Shaw Baptist Church hasn’t come around yet, but they’re the only church in town who is not a part of Delta Hands for Hope. White churches and black churches in other communities are coming together. Racial reconciliation is happening in the process of this focus on children.”
Covenants of action
The New Baptist Covenant began with a 2008 “Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant” spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter in an effort to unify Baptists across the United States across lines of race, theology and geography. Last year the movement entered a second phase with “covenants of action” pairing white and black churches together for joint missions projects in select U.S. cities. More than 20 such partnerships are on the drawing board in 2015.
Asked during a Q&A about people or churches that don’t want to be transformed, Coker told a story about an early mission project in Shaw that involved painting over graffiti on the back of the library.
“This guy comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey boy, you know all these kids around here are just going to vandalize it,’” he recounted. “I said ‘OK,’ then I kind of leaned into him, and I go, ‘I have more paint than they do.’”
“I was like, there is nobody in Shaw who will buy more paint than we will,” Coker said. “There’s the hard-headed insistence that we are going to do good, and we’re going to be more hard-headed about doing good than anybody can be hard-headed about doing bad. And we have more resources to be hard-headed.”
“There’s going to be some people who don’t like transformation,” Coker said. “There’s going to be this ‘we don’t want to do that’ and all this, but we will focus on the good and forge ahead, making as many partners as we can, but we will not relent to bad and evil. We will not bend. That is a commitment we made early on.”