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Despite Differences, Student Share Vision for Baptist Unity

By Patrick O’Neill

Divinity students with vastly different Baptist backgrounds shared a common vision for their denomination when they traveled together to Atlanta, Ga., this past winter to embrace a “New Baptist Covenant.”

The gathering, which brought together the nation’s four traditional black Baptist denominations with mostly moderate-to-liberal white Baptists, was the first-ever interracial meeting of the denomination on such a large scale. The groups who met in Atlanta represented approximately 20 million Baptists nationwide.

Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography
left to right: Graham Ashcraft, Curtis Freeman, Wallis C. Baxter III, Chris Schelin and LeAnne Spruill.

Twenty-two students carpooled to Atlanta with Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies and director of Duke’s Baptist House of Studies, and Tammy Williams, assistant professor of theology and black church studies.

The gathering was less about theology and more about “healing the wounds of racial divisions” that have a 200-year history in Baptist life, says Freeman.

The process of racial healing won’t be easy, says LeAnne Spruill, 27. “We need to really get into the messiness of why we’re still separate. What is it honestly? We need to pull that out and talk about it.”

Spruill wants to see Baptists develop a vision that breaks through racial and gender divides. A second-year divinity student, she’s still uncertain where her career will take her in a denomination that has historically denied women access to the pulpit. 

“A Baptist minister said that if I actually went into ministry my salvation was at stake,” says Spruill. “But I think if we make [those Baptists] the enemy, then we’re not fighting the right battle.”

Instead Spruill embraces the New Baptist Covenant theme, “Unity in Christ,” which comes out of Luke 4:18-19 and Christ’s vision of liberation, healing and good news.

Spruill says other Baptist women at Duke have faced similar challenges, but that’s not where their story ends. “We don’t want to make the rest of our ministry about proving someone wrong. We want to be servants of the gospel.”

Wallis C. Baxter III, also a second-year divinity student, was raised in the African-American Baptist tradition in Atlanta. Within that tradition, faith and community activism are seamless. As a pastor, Baxter wants to continue to promote a faith-in-action agenda in his ministry.

A key component of racial healing must include a willingness to listen to each other, says Baxter, 24. “A lot of the issues that separate us are because we love to tell our story, but we don’t necessarily like listening to other people’s stories. I think that is key, especially for the racial issues. If both sides listen, I can see interracial dialogue emerge.”

After graduation in May, Tampa, Fla., native Graham Ashcraft will become a youth minister at Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Ashcraft, 25, wants to be part of a church that celebrates a common faith rooted in Jesus Christ rather than focusing on what divides Christians.

After he gets to know his new youth flock, Ashcraft hopes to find a local church interested in forming a partnership. “If I can meet those ministers and get in conversations, find somebody who’s willing to partner in youth ministry, then we can begin.”

May divinity graduate Chris Schelin of Baton Rouge, La., hopes the New Baptist Covenant will become a sincere grassroots exploration of what unity might look like for Baptists, who, he points out, are diverse both socially and theologically.

“We need to figure out what will be foundational to our cooperation, to our identity and to our mission, because any work that we do together is going to be based on certain theological assumptions,” Schelin says.

“Unity is not going to mean agreement 100 percent of the time. Unity means covenanting to struggle with one another rather than split.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer who lives in Garner, N.C.