WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (ABP) — With an African-American population estimated as high as 50 million, the "blight of racism" is "still an epidemic assailing" the United States, writer Maya Angelou said April 24 at the Southeast regional gathering of the New Baptist Covenant at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Angelou, Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest, gave the opening address of the two-day meeting in Wait Chapel on the university campus.
"I am a Baptist myself," said Angelou, who attends Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. She said being a Baptist, like being a Christian, is a process of "learning and growing and daring to love somebody who does not look like you."
"I refuse to allow any man-made reason separate me from other children of God," Angelou said. "I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me."
"At some point I think we have to stop and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are different," she said.
Richard Pierard, professor emeritus of history at Indiana State University, said in a workshop session Baptists have played a significant role in shaping black identity in the United States.
"The Baptist faith gave meaning to people who were oppressed and marginalized" by racism, Pierard said. "The Baptist faith sustained these folks who were caught in the oppressive system of slavery."
While millions of black and white Americans share a Baptist heritage, the vast majority of them worship in churches that are segregated.
"We must work on inclusiveness," said Geneva Brown, a member of First Baptist Church Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem. "You go to any church on Sunday and it is usually segregated — black and white."
Sir Walter Mack, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, said one of the greatest challenges for Baptist identity in the future is achieving racial unity.
"Our churches indeed segregate congregations and keep ourselves separated from other believers just because they are different from us," Mack said.
Mack said he couldn't help but notice how the election of America's first black president brought people together at his predominantly African-American church. "Even people who did not vote for President Obama were happy that we have overcome some racial challenges," Mack said.
Pierard said he thinks Christ "would like a church that has different cultures in it."
The meeting in Winston-Salem was the third of four regional New Baptist Covenant gatherings scheduled this year. The New Baptist Covenant Midwest gathering, scheduled Aug. 6-7 in Norman, Okla., will feature testimonies by former President Jimmy Carter, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry (D) and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts (R).
Messages will be given by Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., and a past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma; Major Jemison, pastor of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and past president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; and Ellis Orozco, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of McAllen, Texas,
The gatherings continue commitments made at a national New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta last year that brought more than 15,000 Baptists from various Baptist groups in North America.
Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, said it was the largest interracial gathering of Baptists ever held in the United States.
This year's gatherings also commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the worldwide Baptist movement.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.