During the height of the civil rights battles in the 1960s, the Progressive National Baptist Convention saw itself as a small beacon of light in a sea of Baptist conservatism. Now the predominantly black group, which wrapped up its 38th annual meeting yesterday, is seeking ways to make its light shine brightly again.
It is not a simple task.
The convention is meeting at a time when all is not well in the Baptist movement. The 8.5 million-member National Baptist Convention, the largest group of black Baptists, saw its leader, the Rev. Henry Lyons, imprisoned after he was convicted of racketeering and grand theft.
The 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, predominantly white, is still apologizing for slavery and grappling with integration. And ministers among the crowd of 8,000 at the Progressive Baptists' meeting this week at the Washington Convention Center say they need to find a way to make the organization continue to be a force in the national civil rights movement while also supporting local congregations trying to do good work in their communities.
Some in the younger generation of Baptist leaders in the 2.5 million-member organization think the group today should be much more firmly focusing on local needs rather than on seemingly distant civil rights battles.
"I have high regard for the men in the convention, but in terms of an agenda, if I talk to my peers, they say the convention is not on the cutting edge for the 21st century," said the Rev. Guy Williams, 37, pastor of Parker Memorial Baptist Church in Takoma Park. Williams's 500-member congregation formed a community development corporation that provides housing and emergency assistance to the needy and is helping people become homeowners.
The Rev. Earl Trent, of Florida Avenue Baptist Church in the District, agreed, saying, "Only if we get into substantive issues will the convention be attractive to churches."
Convention leaders, many of them veterans of the civil rights movement, insist that they can maintain a dual role of acting globally and locally. They were making no apologies that their week in Washington has combined praise and worship with lobbying on national issues and discussing local needs.
The Progressive Baptists organization was founded in 1961 after a group of ministers broke away from the National Baptist Convention over the lifetime tenure of the president, the Rev. J.H. Jackson. Jackson had alienated many black Baptists because he had refused to back the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil disobedience campaign to integrate the South.
"We are here to celebrate 38 years of Christian service," said the Rev. C. Mackey Daniels, Progressive National Baptist president, during the opening of the convention Monday night. "We come not as the largest black Baptist denomination, but we come as the most credible and most prestigious. For that we don't apologize."
This week, Daniels said that if there were ever a need for his convention, it is today. On Monday the ministers voted to cancel their winter meeting in South Carolina because the state still flies the Confederate flag over its capital. For Daniels, who led demonstrations more than three decades ago to integrate businesses in Sumpter, S.C., the boycott is almost a repeat of the 1960s. "The legacy of the Progressive National Baptist Convention is that we want to fight racism where it is, whenever it is," he said.
NAACP Executive Director Kweisi Mfume called the convention's decision to boycott South Carolina "a tremendous boost" in a growing campaign. Vice President Gore, who also addressed the group this week, recalled the organization's strong history, saying that the group "remains at the forefront of the civil rights movement."
During the convention, a group of ministers went to Capitol Hill to urge Republican lawmakers to pass stronger health care legislation and reconsider parts of the tough juvenile crime bill.
"We are dealing with education, evangelism, AIDS/HIV, young people," Daniels said. "All of these things are ingrained in the mission of the Progressive National Baptist Convention."
CAPTION: The Rev. Guy Williams, pastor of Parker Memorial Baptist Church, hopes the Progressive National Baptist Convention will focus on local church issues.