By Ashleigh Bugg
On March 31, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., stood in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and said: “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning…we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”
According to King, the racial divide was seen more clearly at church than at any other time of the social week. Nearly 50 years later, clergy wonder if this idea has changed, or is it impossible to cross religious and racial lines?
It was a storm unlike any seen in the neighborhood surrounding Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La. The historic August 2016 floods left the sanctuary of the African-American congregation covered in water up to a depth of six feet. The neighborhood within a 10-block radius was also inundated with water.
“Go back 100 years and you could not find where a flood had taken place to that degree,” said the Rev. S.C. Dixon, pastor of Greater Mount Olive.
It was out of this chaos that a partnership that was formed included Greater Mount Olive, CBF, University Baptist Church and Broadmoor Baptist Church (both CBF partner churches) and the National Baptist Convention of America International, Inc.
“It’s breathtaking, really,” Dixon said. “Pastor Massar had heard about the flood and how certain churches in the area were affected and the Lord laid the name of our church on his heart.”
Mike Massar serves as pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and also leads CBF of Louisana. “CBF was looking for ways it could be of help,” Massar said. “I met Pastor Dixon, and we started talking together about how we could make this happen.” They brainstormed how the congregations could partner to rebuild the church.
“He came by and sat with us at our place after the water had receded and the journey began,” Dixon said. “And what a journey it has been.”
Although University Baptist and CBF did not have perfect solutions, they wanted to work with Greater Mount Olive to start the recovery process.
“I didn’t know where we would get all the funds that this was going to require — it was pretty astronomical — the devastation,” Massar said. “We were just going to hang together.”
Massar’s congregation offered resources to allow Greater Mount Olive to start planning their recovery. Although it was a long, learning process, a friendship was formed.
“We don’t have the corner on the market on what to do about all this, but we’re going to offer what we have,” Massar said. “We want this to be a partnership.”
The flooding allowed CBF to explore relationships with other members of the Baptist family including the National Baptist Convention of America International Inc., where Dixon serves as secretary. The NBCA — an African-American Baptist body — was formed in Atlanta in 1895 and has been headquartered in Shreveport, La. After the flood, CBF reached out to the convention which was also helping with relief.
“We met NBCA representatives who were so open-handed and open-hearted,” Massar said. “I think this could set a good model for work on the national level in the future.”
Dixon and the Rev. Samuel C. Tolbert Jr., the president of the NBCA, were invited by Paynter to attend the CBF General Assembly in June. The two flew to Atlanta to spend the day with Paynter and CBF partners and, that same week, CBF staff met with the NBCA Congress when they held their annual session in Kansas City, Mo.
“This has helped to solidify partnering with each other,” Dixon said. “We can do more together than we can separated.”
Since the flood, both congregations have committed to partnering long-term. Although it was initially a working relationship, friendships were formed.
“S.C. Dixon and his wife Jackie have become good friends of my wife Lisa and me,” Massar said. “They are just terrific people. They’re doing great things where they are.”
Massar invited Dixon’s congregation to visit University Baptist one Sunday so the groups could worship together. “We had a fantastic morning,” Massar said. “S.C. was so pumped he made a plaque for both our churches that had a picture.” The congregations exchanged the plaques in order to commemorate their partnership. “He said, ‘let’s put this at our front doors so we remember we’re in this together,”’ Massar recalled. “We proudly put it at our front door, and they’ve done the same thing. This is the beginning of a real friendship where we will periodically worship together.”
Long after the relief process ends, the congregations want to continue working together.
“CBF, Pastor Massar, University Baptist and Broadmoor Baptist have vowed to bring our people together to start doing missions on a regular basis, not waiting for a catastrophe to happen,” Dixon said. The churches have already worked on missions projects in their neighborhood, giving Christmas gifts to local children. “Children were blessed with Christmas gifts,” Dixon said. “It crossed racial lines; it did not matter who they were or where they lived.”
In an area that still feels the devastation of segregation and racial inequality, crossing religious and racial boundaries can be a challenge. According to a recent City Stats report surveyed in a Louisiana newspaper, The Advocate, for every dollar earned in white households in 2014 in East Baton Rouge parish, Asian households earned 65 cents, Hispanic households earned 57 cents and black households earned 46 cents.
“One of the things that has really been difficult in Baton Rouge is the issue of race,” Massar said. “This partnership has allowed us to establish friendships before we talk about the theology or the social justice aspects.”
Dixon agrees that forming relationships is an important step. “We’ve gotten to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in the same denomination yet in different conventions,” he said. “There’s that racial line and divide that the Lord allowed us both to tear down so our families could learn to be a family on earth before we get to heaven.”
Although they live in the same city, Massar said the differences are apparent. “It’s funny; we live in the same town but you wouldn’t know it. You would think we lived continents apart,” Massar said.
To overcome this divide, the congregations rely on their friendship.
“Having affection for one another knocks down a lot of protocol and uptightness about this,” Massar added. “It’s not just a bunch of white people coming in trying to do something. We’re with our friends….I think they are going to return the favor with us, too. We have so much to learn from each other.”
Dixon maintains that the issue exists not just in Baton Rouge, but in most cities in the U.S.
“That religious, racial line still divides us,” he said. “We’re in the same places of work during the week, the same malls and restaurants; but on Sunday we go our separate ways. We’re in our separate churches, worshiping one God, but still separated.”
Dixon said in order to move forward, congregations need to stop talking about coming together and take action. “They showed us the love of God. They stepped in when we were in need with no strings attached,” Dixon said. “It’s been far too long that we preach about getting together, we sing about it and talk about it, but never put it in action.”
Massar agrees that to move forward with relief, it will take humility and learning from different congregations. “We get to see some ah-ha moments of grace,” Massar said. “It makes us feel like a church because we are being good friends with good people.”
Although the floods were devastating to the community, Dixon maintains that positive outcomes were seen. “We are recipients of blessings from brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus who didn’t have to reach out to us but, because of grace and mercy, they did,” Dixon said. “Out of every tragedy can come a triumphant situation.”