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With $1 million grant, 25 Alliance of Baptists congregations are working to understand systemic racism and overcome it

Twenty-five churches associated with the Alliance of Baptists are participating in a five-year national scholarly study of how to expose and address systemic racism in their local contexts.

The “Churches that THRIVE for Racial Justice” initiative is funded by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment and is administered by Davidson College, a private liberal arts school in North Carolina.

Gerardo Martí, professor of sociology at Davidson College, leads the project in partnership with Paula Clayton Dempsey, director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists. The project’s core team also includes sociologists Mark Mulder of Calvin University and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University, both of whom have spent their careers examining racial and ethnic dynamics in American churches.

In its current phase, the project leaders are working with Michael Emerson of Rice University to build an online survey that will be administered to the larger Alliance of Baptists community. Emerson is the principal investigator with the largest study of race and religion ever conducted in the United States.

Paula Dempsey

“Each congregation in the cohort has identified a clergy person and lay leader to lead the work in their setting,” Dempsey explained. “Our first step is to offer antiracism training to all of these identified leaders to ensure we have a shared understanding of systemic racism and a shared vocabulary. The first cohort meeting is scheduled in May.

“There is general enthusiasm among the cohort reflecting the urgency to address the harm being done by white supremacy in church and society today,” she added.

This work parallels key objectives of the Alliance, which seeks to lead the way in dismantling systemic racism while creating new models for racial justice.

“Though the Alliance is doing so much, there is much left to do,” Dempsey said. “The journey of incarnating the liberating good news and love of Jesus in all we say and do is a long one, and the Alliance will not rest until we have become fully transformed as a movement.”

Gerardo Martí

“The Alliance emerged out of a denomination whose history is deeply entangled with Christian support for slavery,” Martí noted. “By taking a mirror to themselves, they’re saying not only that racial injustice is a problem but also that they’re willing to take a hard look at how aspects of racial oppression and racial marginalization may remain amidst their churches, even though they are among the boldest Christian advocates speaking out against racism today.”

Once the “racial audit” is completed, it will be used as a baseline to measure progress and assess what’s working and what’s not. Leaders hope the cohort participants also will develop a sense of comradery in this work.

Eventually, the results of the research will be shared with congregations nationwide.

“It is exciting to participate in a research project with such profound practical importance,” said Baylor University’s Dougherty. “We want to do more than understand the troubled history of race and religion in the United States. We want to help congregations promote racial justice.”

The grant funding this project is part of $93 million in grants to 92 organizations made by Lilly to help congregations gain clarity about their values and mission, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”

The 25 congregations participating in the cohort are: Austin Heights Baptist Church, Nacogdoches, Texas; Calvary Baptist Church, Denver; Central Baptist Church, Lexington, Ky.; Circle of Faith, St. Petersburg, Fla.; College Park Baptist Church, Greensboro, N.C.; First Baptist Church, Austin, Texas; First Baptist Church, Columbia, Mo.; First Baptist Church, Madison, Wisc.; First Baptist Church, Worcester, Mass.; First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Ga.; Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn.; Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.; Judson Memorial Church, New York City; Lake Street Church, Evanston, Ill.; Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C.; Northminster Church, Monroe, La.; Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Cambridge, Mass.; Peace Community Church, Oberlin, Ohio; Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C.; Ravensworth Baptist Church, Annandale, Va.; Royal Lane Baptist Church, Dallas; United Church, Granville, Ohio; University Baptist Church, Hattiesburg, Miss.; University Baptist Church, Minneapolis; Washington Plaza Baptist Church, Reston, Va.