By Chris Hughes
If you were to have set foot onto the campus of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, between 1925 and 1959, there is a good chance you would have been given a very warm greeting from a man named John Thomas, the head custodian at the time. John Thomas was a regular presence at the church and would greet church members by name. He loved the congregation and the congregation loved him as he served the church under five different pastorates and was considered to be an institution of the congregation.
But as you moved into the grandeur of Broadway’s Gothic-style sanctuary, taking in its vaulted arch ceilings, the ornate stained glass and massive pipe organ, there would be one person noticeably absent—John Thomas. Thomas was Black and, because Broadway, like so many churches at the time, was segregated, he could not sit in the sanctuary during worship services. Still wanting to hear the preaching, Thomas would slip into the baptistery of the church where he could hear, but not be seen by the congregation.
Uncovering that haunting story from Broadway’s past is one part of a broader effort that the church, led by a group called the ACT Council, is making to address racial injustice and its desire to become a more diverse and inclusive congregation into the future. ACT stands for Acknowledge, Confess, and Transform, a summary of the group’s stated purpose to lead the church to “acknowledge our sins and the sins of our society; confess our wrongs; and commit ourselves to transform through the process of deep personal and institutional change.”
“The ACT Council was formed in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd,” said Ryon Price, senior pastor of Broadway. The summer of 2020 was marked by nation-wide demonstrations for racial justice in response to the death of George Floyd. Historically white churches from large cities to small rural towns joined the demonstrations and drafted statements committing to work for racial justice. They also formed book clubs and studies around works like The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, and White Too Long by Robert P. Jones.
“Jones’ book on the history and complicity of the moderate, white church was very convicting to me,” Price noted. “The aftermath of George Floyd’s death, reading that book and recognizing the historically white church’s place in creating the condition of what Black America had to deal with was a major impetus for my writing the letter to create the ACT Council.”
In September 2020, Price penned a letter to his congregation and to the church leadership, calling for the creation of this new council, which would help the church reckon with its own racial history while creating ways for the church to live into a new identity—one that would be more diverse, inclusive and justice-oriented. In his letter, Price expressed his hope for the church to “become more racially diverse in membership, more explicitly committed to the work of racial justice, more fully inclusive and affirming of all persons, including women, persons of color, and those in the LGBTQ community, and more explicitly welcoming and inclusive in our policies toward persons wishing to join the church from other denominational traditions and practices.”
By December of that year, the diaconate had responded, recommending that the church establish the ACT Council with seven desired outcomes:
- To review the church’s mission statement, expanding it to include reconciliation and justice.
- To establish a standing Justice Committee to speak out on matters of justice and human rights.
- To provide a history of racism at the church, and make recommendations for what it can do to make reparations.
- To establish a Diversity Task Force, and to conduct an audit of the entire church and identify where matters of diversity and inclusion are deficient.
- To develop educational programming for the church on racism, sexism and other areas of exclusion.
- To identify and act upon ways for the church to become more racially diverse.
- To amend the bylaws of the church to explicitly welcome, affirm and include all members within the Body of Christ, especially those within the LGTBQ community, people of color and those from other ecumenical traditions.
By January, the council had begun to take shape. Church members were allowed to nominate themselves for the council and ultimately about 25 people joined the group. “The next step was to break up the work into discrete task forces,” said the Rev. Alan Bean, a retired hospital chaplain who serves on the council. The seven action items soon became seven task forces, each charged with creating ways for the church to complete its desired outcome.
The Justice Committee, for example, focuses on public witness and advocacy for human rights in the community. They have attended city council meetings to advocate for affordable housing, and made public statements on police oversight and voting rights.
Alan serves on the History Task Force, working to excavate and share stories like that of John Thomas, illustrating Broadway’s history related to race. “It’s not just to focus on the negatives but also on the positive contributions the church has made at the city level and within our denomination,” Price noted. “Those are also stories that need to be told.” One example is the church’s past move to welcome people who are LGBTQ as members, which resulted in their expulsion from the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008. “I think this church has acted with courage at times and that needs to be affirmed. But at other times we’ve been too silent, so we have to ask why and at what cost,” Price said.
Alan’s spouse, Rev. Nancy Bean, is also a member of the ACT Council and chairs the Diversity Task Force. Their work is primarily focused on doing a congregation-wide self-audit, including the church staff, polity, ministries for different age groups and corporate worship. “It’s turning out to be a huge job but also very illuminating!” Nancy shared. The self-audits ask representatives of the different areas of the church to evaluate how they are doing on a range of topics, from diversity to incorporating different worship styles and music, as well as accessibility and church leadership.
For Nancy, one of the biggest surprises is how just asking the questions is eliciting change in the congregation already. “One of the questions we created is: ‘Is there intentional, regular diversity training for staff and laity?’ Once we asked the question, the youth minister started doing it the next month,” she shared.
The council is about halfway through its work, but the process hasn’t been without some growing pains from the church’s new focus. “Not everyone has stayed in the church; but we’ve certainly been growing quite a bit, too. Several of our new members say it’s the creation of the ACT Council that let them know they were in the right place,” Alan said. Both Alan and Nancy see the ACT Council as a way to lean into a new identity for the future, and accelerate some of the changes that were already been taking place within the congregation. “Rather than drifting in survival mode, we want to be in charge of our own destiny and intentional about where we’re going,” Alan said.
It’s that shift that has been especially important for Mattie Compton, who serves on the diaconate and as co-chair of the ACT Council. Compton knows on a personal level why the work of the ACT Council matters. “I grew up in a segregated Fort Worth,” she said. “I entered Broadway with all the hesitancy borne of that experience, but found a warm and welcoming congregation. Worshiping in a historically white Baptist church with others who seek a fuller understanding of the impact of racism, who work diligently to achieve diversity and inclusion, but more importantly who seek to foster a sense of belonging, gives me hope.”
As a historian, Alan is especially keen on sharing this work in the broader context of the church’s history, from a flagship Southern Baptist Church whose membership numbered in the thousands to a thriving CBF congregation embracing diversity and radical inclusivity. “We have been following our Lord down a hard road, and we have accomplished great things because we didn’t take the easy way. I want people to feel that the last 50 years have meant something, that we’ve been going somewhere,” he said.
“It’s been a journey toward justice,” Nancy added.
“This is deeply spiritual work,” Price concluded. “This is work that white pastors in historically white congregational contexts need to be doing in order to acknowledge, confess and transform.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read the issue online at http://www.cbf.net/fellowship.