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For New Wine, New Wineskins


Last week, the Southern Baptists asked African-Americans to forgive them for condoning racism for most of the denomination's 150-year history.

As an African-American, I applaud this move. It's unusual for white folks to bring up the subject of racism. Also, it's rare to see a group with such a past make amends.

But, alas, I'm left with questions about the Southern Baptists' expressions of contrition. I wonder if they're not trying to pour new wine into old wineskins, biblically speaking.

The denomination's move comes at a time when I've been reading about racial reconciliation. The authors I have read say -- that for America to heal the rift between the races requires the development of one-on-one relationships between blacks and whites. Arranging such relationships becomes even more problematic with the trend of many whites fleeing the nation's cities for suburbia and exurbia. Middle-class black people are moving to the suburbs, too, leaving poorer, less well-educated black people segregated in the city.

With this in mind, I would hope that the Southern Baptists would seize the opportunity to play an important role in eradicating the effects of racism from our society.

Here are some ideas:

* Initiate a nationwide network that matches each white Southern Baptist church with a local black church of a similar-size 'N congregation. Give them some specific objectives, such as planning joint services to alternate between churches.

* Make a course on race relations and an internship with a social-service agency in an inner-city neighborhood mandatory for each seminary student.

* Annually designate a day as "Racial Reconciliation Sunday" when people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds would meet to set an agenda for eradicating racism.

Why propose such an agenda for the country's largest Protestant denomination? Our nation's churches are uniquely suited to do what government-imposed remedies could never do: Bring people together on a voluntary basis to work on what W.E.B. DuBois called the major problem of the 20th century. Too often in world history a society's progress has been stalled because of religious or ethnic intolerance. Many times religious leaders and their followers have been accomplices in calamities by either participating or remaining silent.

In this country, religious denominations (not just the Southern Baptists) have, by and large, not remained vigilant on racial and ethnic intolerance. The result has been crime, ignorance and poverty.

From his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that few white religious leaders had joined the civil-rights struggle: "I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause. . . . But again I have been disappointed." Of course, many religious leaders eventually did join to support King. But many, too, remained silent.

By the very nature of their beliefs, religious groups should be at the forefront of the struggle for social and economic justice. In Baltimore, we can think of times when an ecumenical thrust helped remove racist barriers.

A key example is the integration of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn 32 years ago -- a turning point in the local struggle for social justice that caused other barriers to equality to fall. The park had been the target of protesters for years, but it took a series of multiracial, interdenominational protests to force change.

Churches are intimate gatherings of people who share common values. Typically, church members forge bonds over years. A sermon on racism from a spiritual leader who has baptized your children and prayed for your sick spouse is more powerful than any politician's message.

One of the Southern Baptists' remedies for the legacy of racism is to start all-black churches. There are black ministers who are suspicious of such attempts to recruit African-Americans. With most main-line church memberships stabilizing after falling for a number of years, these pastors fear that white churches will pluck off middle-class black churchgoers, leaving them poorer blacks. An ecumenical dialogue would help ease their suspicions.

While it's never too late to say you're sorry, the sincerity of the Southern Baptists' apology will be judged by actions -- not just words.

N Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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