Race issue rises in St. Louis Covenant dialog - Word&Way

Race issue rises in St. Louis Covenant dialog

ST. LOUIS — Thirty-six Baptists — including blacks and whites — gathered to express their concerns about racism in the St. Louis area and beyond during a session of a regional gathering of the New Baptist Covenant II.

St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church in St. Louis hosted one of several satellite gatherings of the Covenant on Nov. 17-19.

Utilizing a Baptist Center for Ethics video titled "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism" and their own experiences following a high-profile shooting in Kirkwood, two pastors guided a discussion exploring what could be done to address racism.

Scott Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, and Jeffrey Croft, pastor of Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Kirkwood, shared their own experiences of reaching out to help their racially divided city after a gunman charged into a city council meeting and killed two police officers and three city officials before authorities shot him to death in early 2008.

Stearman, who is white, and Croft, who is black, described their ongoing efforts to address racial issues in the suburban community after the gunman, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, a black and local activist, apparently snapped one evening and launched the rampage.

The pastors and many other people in Kirkwood took the lead in the aftermath of the tragedy to address ongoing racial tensions through the development of the Community for Understanding and Healing.

Many community leaders refused to address the racial overtones of the incident, they said.

But both Croft and Stearman and their churches refuse to let go of the issue; they are committed to help the community and its citizens improve the racial climate, even though they have faced indifference and sometimes opposition for their efforts.

The process has been slow and successes have been limited, both acknowledge. But they were heartened when the current police chief "called on the pastors to form a new system of chaplaincy," Croft said.

Through the process, Stearman said he learned two things: First, "racism is very personal." And "while we have moved beyond some of the racism, what we are not beyond is encoded (or institutional) racism."

Croft's and Stearman's experience prompted a broader discussion of the issue of race, particularly across St. Louis.

"I think we have been greatly impoverished by segregation in the church," Jim Hill, executive director of Churchnet (also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri), told the group. "Part of the tragedy is that the one group of people that should address this problem is the church."

"What should church people be doing?" Stearman asked.

One respondent challenged pastors: "Tell the truth. We worry that we will offend someone. Get in the pulpit and tell the truth and you will offend somebody."

Another suggested, "If we can get our children together at an early age, then by the time they are young adults, they can worship together."

Ron Bobo, senior pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church, said the discussion of racism must "get to the issues of power and politics," evidences of institutional racism.

Bobo cited the example of red-lining, the discriminatory practice by which institutions such as banks and insurance companies refuse or limit loans, mortgages and insurance within specific geographic areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods.