As African-American Baptists gathered in conventions this summer, a question that kept coming up was whether the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention is attempting to steal their flocks.
It's a concern expected to be addressed this week as the nation's two largest African-American Baptist bodies conduct national conventions in Birmingham, Ala., and in Dallas.
Some African-American Baptists question the sincerity of a highly publicized resolution approved in June by Southern Baptists repenting for the denomination's roots in slavery and apologizing for condoning racism.
And some have wondered in writings and in speeches at various conventions whether the apology will remove a major barrier to more African-American congregations joining the predominantly white group.
In Dallas, up to 15,000 attending the annual convention of the 3.5 million-member National Baptist Convention of America Inc., through Friday are expected to discuss the Southern Baptist racism resolution and what it really means, said the Rev. Willie Range of Dallas, a local spokesman for the convention.
"I think we will accept the apology," Mr. Range said.
But, he added, "I think there is some concern about sheep-stealing. I think they also are concerned about hidden Republican agendas in the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of the white Baptists are archconservatives."
Soon after the Southern Baptist apology, African-American ministers began questioning the action in their pulpits and at denominational meetings. It was a hot topic in June when the Rev. Michael Bell of Fort Worth spoke in San Diego at the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Congress of Christian Education.
"Speaker after speaker condemned the Southern Baptist resolution" with many calling it an effort to barge in on the African-American church community, Mr. Bell said.
The Southern Baptist statement is not on the agenda for discussion but will probably pop up in speeches this week when 25,000 delegates gather in Birmingham at the national convention of the 7.5 million-member National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the largest African-American Baptist denomination, said Mr. Bell, who will attend the Alabama meeting.
"The Baptist resolution may have been meant for good," he said. "But many are interpreting it as a means of seducing black congregations and trying to sucker African-American churches into joining the Southern Baptist Convention."
Although most African-American Baptist congregations still belong to predominantly black denominations, Southern Baptists are making rapid progress in adding black churches to their 15.5 million-member denomination. African-American congregations make up about 1,900 of the more than 37,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. And the number has been increasing at a pace of about 120 new churches a year since 1989, said Willie McPherson, director of the African-American relations department of the Baptist Home Mission Board in Atlanta.
But Mr. McPherson and other Southern Baptist leaders said they are not trying to rob the African-American denominations of their congregations or nourish any political movement and instead want to reach out to unchurched people in the African-American community.
"The bottom line is Southern Baptists are not interested in stealing sheep," said Mr. McPherson, who is an African-American.
But the Rev. E. Edward Jones, president of the National Baptist Convention of America group meeting in Dallas, disagreed.
"I think they are going more into the African-American community because we have the largest and fastest growing middle class among any ethnicity today," he said.
In a statement sent to churches this month, Mr. Jones said: "Southern Baptists with their belated apology have not had such a heart and mind to so love us. . . . We must not be swept away by hidden agendas."
He added: "We must realize our own potentialities. The Black Church must see a need for its continued existence."
In an interview, Mr. Jones noted links between many Southern Baptists and right-wing Republicans. During the Dallas convention, Mr. Jones said, he will urge churches to redouble their efforts to aid the minority community that is threatened by the Republican agenda calling for cuts in affirmative action programs.
Mr. Jones said he and the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., met recently and are discussing joint programs to offer economic assistance to the black communities they serve. Although his denomination continues to grow, it is not growing fast enough, Mr. Jones said. "We've got to increase our efforts to assist in building new churches."