By Grayson Hester
Before the summer of 2020, Wallace Montgomery, III, had never even heard of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Now, only a few months later, he’s transferring to one of CBF’s partner seminaries—Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
The difference between then and now?
CBF’s Young Baptist Ecosystem and its Student.Church program, which placed Montgomery at First Baptist Church, Roswell, Georgia. Oh, what a difference it made!
“It literally changed my life,” Montgomery said. “I never could have seen this in a million years; but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
And Montgomery isn’t the only one to experience change this year. The whole program, in order to adapt to constraints and concerns presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, had to go in a new direction. Typically, the Student Dot summer internships—Student.Church and Student.Go—place young adults with CBF-affiliated churches and partners or CBF field personnel ministries, respectively, sending them physically to their sites for two months of supervised ministerial experience. But summer 2020 was anything but typical.
Once it became clear that COVID-19 would not allow any kind of safe interstate travel, the program was overhauled and moved almost totally online. And, perhaps expectedly, some churches had no choice but to drop out. This opened the door for churches like FBC Roswell and students like Montgomery to try the program for the first time.
Montgomery was pursuing his Master of Divinity at Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta when he first heard of CBF thanks to a fellow student. Upon learning about CBF and its Student Dot programs, he went out on a limb and applied, despite knowing almost nothing about the Fellowship or anyone involved.
Soon after he was accepted, he received a call from Devita Parnell, director of CBF’s Young Baptist Ecosystem. “Devita called and said, ‘You need a match. And I have found a church that needs an intern,’” Montgomery said.
As is the case with many CBF churches, FBC Roswell is a predominantly white congregation. And Montgomery is a black man. Parnell made sure to make Montgomery aware of this.
“Hey, I grew up in rural Arkansas,” he said. “I was always the only African American in the room. Do they believe in Jesus? If they believe in Jesus, I believe in Jesus. It’ll be fine.”
But that confidence doesn’t mean he was without understandable reservations. Although Montgomery was living in Atlanta, he was unfamiliar with Roswell, a majority-white, northern suburb of the city. He didn’t know anyone at the church, and he had never participated in this kind of program. But once he arrived at FBC—a fact made possible by his close proximity to the church—all the anxiety melted away.
“When I got there, they loved on me and they accepted me,” he said. “I thought I was going to get just a stipend; but instead I got a family. We do life together.”
Montgomery immediately got plugged into the church, performing duties as diverse as filling in for a drummer, planning and teaching students and young adults.
“Wallace was fantastic to work with all summer long,” said Logan Carpenter, minister of spiritual development at FBC Roswell. “He had a positive attitude and a great mindset in everything he did.”
It was a mutually beneficial relationship so successful that now, according to Carpenter, the church is considering rejoining Student Dot next year, and they have offered Montgomery a year-long pastoral internship position.
But beyond any professional credentials achieved or ministerial experiences gained, what really impacted Montgomery was a change of heart.
“CBF kind of changed the heart of me. Growing up in Arkansas, racial tension is nothing new to me. But this summer changed me for the better. I now see the heart of a person, instead of the exterior.”
The staff at FBC Roswell made him feel heard. The members of FBC Roswell took him in, even going so far as to provide him a bedroom so he wouldn’t have to make the 30-minute drive back to Atlanta too late at night. And at the end of the summer, members wrote him thank-you cards, something he said he’d never experienced at any other church.
For a Black male soon-to-be pastor who has a heart for social justice, serving in an unfamiliar congregation in a new denomination—both of which are predominantly white—during the most racially significant summer arguably since the 1960s—for all this to happen, and for him to have had a positive experience, can only be chalked up to grace.
“Even with the adverse experiences of my past, my current experience has greatly improved who I am becoming,” Montgomery said. “My current experience has allowed me to live in grace. I’ve preached about grace before; I’ve even taught lessons on it. But participating in this CBF summer program taught me how to live in grace—how to accept it for myself, welcome it and walk with it day-to-day.”
And as for his life, with a changed heart, a renewed calling, a different seminary direction and a now-familiar church to serve over the next year? Well…“Life is better than it has ever been,” he said.
This article appeared in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.