KIRBYVILLE, Texas (ABP) — Some people see the world in black and white. Charles Burchett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kirbyville, Texas, aims to end that.
The soft-spoken-but-frank minister has become the voice for racial unity in a town that has seen incidents running the gamut of racism — from cross burnings to Anglos who are reluctant to look African-Americans in the eye at the grocery store.
In his own congregation, a church member once relayed a message that his family would not come to worship until an African-American family was unwelcome at the service.
Against this wave of division, Burchett has set out in a spirit of “love and humility.” He led his congregation to pray about the area's racial tension, and the church now holds weekly prayer sessions about community issues.
He invited African-American pastors to speak at his church and went to several events predominantly attended by minorities. “In war against the spirit of darkness, you have to do so in the opposite spirit — or you're actually fighting for them,” said Burchett, a Baptist General Convention of Texas regional prayer coordinator.
Then, in 1998, the unthinkable happened in nearby Jasper, Texas. James Byrd, an African-American, was killed by three Anglo men who dragged him to death behind their truck. Burchett pooled a group of pastors from Jasper and Newton to speak against the racially motivated crime.
A week later the pastor was called to speak at the Texas Republican Party Prayer Breakfast in Fort Worth, where he repented for the way Anglos historically have treated African-Americans.
Following that display, Burchett was invited to speak at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's counter-demonstration to a Klu Klux Klan gathering in Jasper. When he took the platform a group of black militants left the room, not wanting to listen to a white man.
There, Burchett repented on his hands and knees for how the “white church” treated African-Americans.
Many in the audience wept loudly, drawing the militants back into the room. Tears fell from many of their eyes.
The displays were a form of repentance similar to those enacted by the Old Testament prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, Burchett said. Though the pastor himself was not guilty of overt racist behavior, he sought to represent all Anglos when he publicly repented.
When performed properly, the public repentances can alter the spiritual atmosphere of an area, Burchett argued. “It has to be done at the appropriate time, at the appropriate place, with the appropriate people,” he said.
Burchett's actions drew sharp criticism from many in East Texas. Discussion of the pastor's stance hit newspapers across the state. Rumors swirled about him. His church's attendance dropped significantly. But the pastor continued his outspoken behavior, believing he was following God's direction.
“Jesus has won the victory for us, but we have to work through the process,” he said. “It is work. It is a battle. The hard part is, sometimes the enemy has a human face.”
In 2003, 21 Anglo pastors, including Burchett, and their wives invited a group of African-American pastors and their wives to dinner at First Baptist Church. The Anglos served the African-Americans a “lavish dinner” and waited on them. The Anglos ate in the kitchen, alley or not at all — much like African-Americans who were not allowed to eat at their white employers' dinner tables in the past.
Many of the black pastors and their wives broke into tears.
The meal was followed by a worship service that joined African-Americans and Anglos. Burchett led the Anglos to repent on their knees for their race's treatment of African-Americans.
At Thanksgiving this year, black and white Kirbyville residents ate a large organized meal together for the first time in the town's recent history. More than half the pastors at the dinner were African-American.
Burchett said he believes his actions under the direction of God are creating an “atmosphere of righteousness” that will affect “the unrighteous.” African-Americans have told him they feel more comfortable at his church now than any time during his 25-year tenure leading the congregation. Whites in Kirbyville are becoming more open to African-Americans and many are reconsidering their preconceived notions, Burchett said. He added that African-Americans' resentment and anger over their past treatment at the hands of Anglos also appears on the decline. But the pastor continues his work.
“We would rather have a large presence than a large congregation,” Burchett said of his church. “We are not a seeker-sensitive church. We are a spirit-sensitive church.”