Shands bridged racial divide - Word&Way

Shands bridged racial divide

By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor

Norman Shands recounts an early experience in his ministry as an Atlanta pastor that illustrates two principles that guided him in the area of civil rights — stand by your convictions and don’t underestimate the value of dialogue.

Today, Shands is 91 and the chaplain at The Baptist Home in Chillicothe. But from 1953 to 1963 — when Atlanta and the rest of the South were struggling with school integration — he was the pastor of Atlanta’s West End Baptist Church. (See story)

It was a Sunday morning in July 1954, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down segregation in public education. While Shands was in his office with a couple of laymen before teaching his men’s Bible study class, an alarmed deacon came to his door.

A black man was in the front lawn of West End Baptist Church wanting to attend morning services, and the deacon wasn’t sure what to do.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you invite him up here, and we’ll all sit and hear him and see what he has in mind,’” Shands responded.

The pastor greeted the visitor, who identified himself as an unemployed Holiness minister.

“When I woke up this morning, the Holy Spirit laid on my heart to come to church here…,” he explained to the men. The man quoted several Scriptures about what the gospel required in race relations, prompting Shands to reply, “I can agree with your interpretation of those passages and it’s a concern to me, too.”

The pastor invited his new acquaintance to attend the Bible study class.

“I introduced him as my guest and called on him to give his testimony of his salvation,” Shands said. “They bristled when he came into the room and when I introduced him. But after he gave his testimony, they were relaxed.”

After class, Shands issued another invitation: “I want you to come into the worship service as my guest also. [But]  I’m not going to be able to call on you to give your testimony.” The schedule would not allow enough time, he ex­plained.

The pastor added a caution: “You may as well know, not everybody’s going to be happy to see you there. Some people will be upset about that, and you may as well be prepared for [it].”

The visitor thought a moment before responding: “Paul advises us to do everything decently and in order. I don’t think it would be decent and in order for me to go in if it’s going to be controversial. You need to know that I feel I have been received here today as a brother. I know where you stand on this, but I don’t want to have any part in causing problems here.”

Later, during a regular gathering between white pastors in the association and a group of black pastors, Shands told of the encounter during a sermon.  Martin Luther King Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, was there.

“He told me later: ‘You know, I’ve assumed the white churches were behind in this matter because the pastors were not confronting them with this and not leading them in this. You changed my perception of that. I assumed white churches follow their pastors the way black churches follow their pastors. I see that you’re not holding back on this.’”

In his 2006 book, “In My Father’s House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer” (available at, Shands’ son, Bob, later noted that several church members were not particularly pleased with how their pastor handled the situation with the African- American visitor.

Shands had grown up in south Georgia, and prejudice was part and parcel of what he was supposed to be. However, as a young Christian minister, he became convinced that racism was wrong and vowed to treat every person as someone made in the image of God.

Hardly a civil rights firebrand, Shands didn’t shy away from the issue in preaching and teaching. But it was through dialogue, teachable moments and one-on-one encounters that he saw people abandon attitudes and lifestyles of racial superiority.

That openness to dialogue and relationship-building enabled the pastor to help affect the issue on a city-wide basis and foster a smooth transition to integration of Atlanta’s schools.

Shands continued to build bridges of racial understanding after he was called as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City in 1963. What a great example of pastoral leadership.