Thanks to a $1 million Lilly Endowment grant to Davidson College, the Alliance of Baptists has new partners in our movement toward building a racially-just Alliance and in supporting congregational partners in their growing commitment to expose and address systemic racism in their local contexts.
The grant comes from Lilly Endowment’s national "Thriving Congregations Initiative" and funds a new project in partnership with Davidson College titled “Churches that THRIVE for Racial Justice.” The project, involving 15-25 churches in the United States and Canada, will examine white-dominant congregational life and vitality through the lens of the Alliance’s commitment to racial justice, specifically working to dislodge white-biased structures of injustice and enacting racially-aware ministry and liturgical practices.
Gerardo Martí, professor of sociology at Davidson College, will lead the project in partnership with Paula Clayton Dempsey, director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists. The project’s core team also includes sociologists Mark Mulder of Calvin University and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University who’ve spent their careers examining racial and ethnic dynamics in American churches.
A Principled Vision for Equity
The Alliance is in the midst of a revolution that has been a part of the movement from our beginning. Since our inception, we have fully included women in positions of ordained leadership. We have led Baptist life in welcoming the LGBTQIA community into full partnership in the life and ministry of the church. Now we find our current identity in the movement to reshape the Alliance—aware of our place in a system that has repeatedly bruised and wounded black and brown bodies—transforming the Alliance into a movement where racial equity intersects with all our efforts to be agents of God’s justice and love in the world.
Acknowledging that our movement toward a racially-just Alliance has been slow and far from perfect, we are grateful for the funding and the expertise offered by these partners that provides resources for our ecclesial body to focus energy and attention toward embodying the vision of what we seek to be—a place where Black, LatinX, Indigenous, Asian Pacific Islanders, and all People of Color find a welcoming home and where we examine and root out oppressive structures, patterns and implicit biases—a future we dream—a future we believe God longs for, too.
Early this year, our board of directors received a ten-page report with recommendations from a Racial Justice Task Group for changing the Alliance. The events of this pandemic season have again demonstrated, to the predominantly white church, the urgency of our work to become antiracist and to dismantle white supremacy structures. “Though the Alliance is doing so much, there is much left to do. The journey of incarnating the liberating good news and love of Jesus in all we say and do is a long one, and the Alliance will not rest until we have become fully transformed as a movement,” offers Paula Clayton Dempsey.
“The Alliance emerged out of a denomination whose history is deeply entangled with Christian support for slavery,” Gerardo Martí says. “By taking a mirror to themselves, they’re saying not only that racial injustice is a problem but also that they’re willing to take a hard look at how aspects of racial oppression and racial marginalization may remain amidst their churches, even though they are among the boldest Christian advocates speaking out against racism today.”
The 15-25 churches partnering in the project will actively confront structures of racism to remove a crucial obstacle to thriving, one that spiritually and materially affects white, Black, LatinX, Asian Pacific Islanders, Indigenous and People of Color.
The project team will use established social science tools to conduct a “racial audit” to determine the racial climate within the participating churches. As we collect and analyze data each year, the audit will serve as a baseline against which to measure progress and assess interventions. Moreover, the team hopes to foster an experience of comradery and expansive sense of mission among the congregants engaged in the work of antiracism.
The team will regularly share what is being learned with members, lay leaders, and pastoral staff of each THRIVE church and with other congregational partners in the Alliance. Learning from the project will also be shared with other Christian organizations and be made public through talks, writings and scholarly publications.
Ben Boswell, pastor of Alliance congregational partner Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C. says the need for this work is everywhere in the Christian church. “Race is one of many issues the church is working on, people say, but race is so deeply embedded in what it means to be a Christian in America,” Boswell says, “This is the work of the church now. It’s not a side issue or something we do for a little while and turn back to later. This is what it means to be a church in the 21st century.”
A Shared Commitment
Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants to 92 organizations through the initiative. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and mission, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.
Organizations taking part in this initiative represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist, Baptist, Episcopal, evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American traditions.
“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” says Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”
Lilly Endowment launched the Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 as part of its commitment to support efforts that enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.
Since its inception, the Alliance has been committed to living out our mission and ministry in partnership. We are prayerful the partnership with the Lilly Endowment, Davidson College, our congregational partners, and the sociologists who guide the project will enable a more just incarnation of the household of God within the Alliance as well as movement toward racial equity within the larger world God so deeply loves.
Lisa Patterson, Davidson College, contributed to this announcement.