A hushed silence fell over the Tampa hockey stadium as thousands of delegates to the National Baptist Convention USA listened last Thursday to the final tally in the hotly contested election to head the nation's largest African American church denomination.
The Rev. Perry Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, was one of those in the vast arena. While he was listening to the results, his mind flashed back to the summer of 1960 when a brawl broke out as the same organization met in Kansas City. At that meeting, the former leader of the convention--the Rev. J.H. Jackson--refused to relinquish his office, leading to a memorable fight. Smith was pushed in the chest and another man fell off the stage in what has become a legendary convention in Baptist lore.
Last week in Tampa, the transition was orderly as leaders of the 8.5 million-member organization picked a new leader, the Rev. William J. Shaw, of Philadelphia. He is the first minister from the Northeast to head the organization that has been dominated by Southerners for generations, and he was backed by a southern bloc.
Shaw's election is seen by many Washington area ministers as a much-needed move toward forgetting about the most recent scandal that has plagued the 118-year-old organization.
Shaw, pastor of Philadelphia's White Rock Baptist Church, is the successor to the Rev. Henry Lyons, who resigned as the convention's president in March after he was convicted by a Florida jury of grand theft and racketeering. He later pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges in connection with stealing nearly $5 million from the convention.
"A lot of local ministers were hurt with what happened with leadership of the National Baptist Convention," said the Rev. Kerry Hill, pastor of New Chapel Baptist Church in Camp Springs. "Now many of us are excited about the potential for new leadership."
Hill, a 35-year-old pastor and member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is part of a new generation of ministers in the National Baptist Convention who believe that it is time for the organization to unify behind a progressive agenda and work to strengthen local churches.
Area church leaders say having a smooth election is one of the clearest signs that the organization is changing. This year's election, unlike past elections that featured loud voice votes and displays of anger, was conducted by an outside firm that had delegates cast ballots in voting machines that were monitored by the Tampa police.
Hill and many pastors from the Northeast supported the candidacy of a New York pastor, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, while ministers from the South backed Shaw.
Richardson, who lost to Shaw by 200 votes, was sanguine about the results even though he spent nearly $300,000 to be elected and staged a huge campaign rally on the eve of the election. "The process was fair. I accept the decision. It is time for the convention to come together in a spirit of unity," he said.
About 10,000 votes were cast during the convention. Shaw won with 3,694 votes to Richardson's 3,451. When it was all over, Richardson said he planned to support Shaw "to heal our convention."
"This election was good for all Baptists," said Smith, the North Brentwood minister, who is a member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which held its annual convention in Washington last month. In Prince George's County, many churches are affiliated with both conventions and many pastors went to Tampa in hopes that Baptists could be united for a common agenda.
The Rev. John D. Chaplin, pastor of the District's Pleasant Lane Baptist Church, served as the convention's first vice president. During the final day of the convention, praise and worship replaced campaigning and Chaplin told the audience, "See how God is bringing us together."
Everything was for sale to God's people at the convention, from organs to church buildings. There were Bibles for $29.95, sermons went for $3, and a black preacher's robe cost about $400.
But one of the hottest shopping venues at the convention was a shoe, hat and suit outlet. There were gold suits, white suits, purple suits and plenty of red suits. The most popular shoes were the alligator skin shoes--in silver, gold or purple--that cost $850.
"A preacher should look like a preacher," said Elder J.D. Williams of St. John Baptist Church in Queens, N.Y. It seemed that about every hour Williams and his associate elder, J.W. Honeysucker, were traveling up and down the escalator in their tailor-made black suits with derbies and canes to match. Hanging around both men's necks were gold crosses.
The sidewalk outside the Tampa Convention Center was a runway for the latest church clothing. It didn't matter that it was 80 degrees; everyone was dressed in Sunday best. Women mostly wore white dresses with big hats and men sported suits of every color imaginable.
Another busy patch at the convention was at the booth set up by the Hoffman Brothers Robe Co., where ministers such as the Rev. A. William Staten Jr. were being fitted for new black robes with gold trim.
"I come back every year," said Staten, a Chicago pastor who says that the convention is a good shopping outlet for pastors from smaller cities that don't have many shopping outlets.
To Win Souls
While ministers were shopping for the latest in church ware, another group of pastors fanned out over Tampa in "SWAT teams" to win souls for Christ. On Friday, the convention had a Baptismal service for the new converts.
The Rev. Clinton W. Austin, pastor of Emanuel Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, said: "We talk about changing conditions; we have to change people. My hope is that we take seriously the charge of Jesus Christ."
There were many gospel preachers at the convention, and each day there were late-night services where thousands sacrificed sleep to sing, pray and encourage each other to get their lives right with God.
It had been 28 years since my last Baptist meeting in Tampa. Johnnie Mae Matthews, my grandmother, never missed her church meetings and when they came along, so did I, from the time I was 1.
I had been born during a Florida Baptist Convention and dubbed "the Convention Baby" when my grandmother, who was the corresponding secretary for the Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, announced my birth during a session.
I will never forget the trips from Pensacola, Fla., in a long, silver Cadillac driven by the Rev. K.C. Bass of Mount Olive Baptist Church. Grandmother always kept a grip filled with stuffed eggs, Vienna sausages and crackers.
In a South that was still segregated, conventions meant staying in the home of some local church member and getting to meetings in "courtesy cars" driven by church members or walking. But the food was good, especially the fish sandwiches laid out on white bread.
Today the baby has grown up, convention boarding was at the Hilton, and I drove around in a company-rented vehicle. But as I drove through Tampa, I thought about my deceased grandmother. Then I saw the pastor of my old church, who said, "Your mother said you would be here."
For me, spiritual growth comes from many sources. Last Saturday, I was with more than 18,000 African American men who packed MCI Center to hear Bishop T.D. Jakes conclude a three-day gospel meeting that attracted more than 60,000 men.
"What we need is to be fathers who affect sons, but you can't affect sons if you are high," Jakes preached during the Manpower 99 conference. "My children need to see a black man who is not a drug dealer and who is successful."
I watched men cry. I saw former football players embrace and hold hands. It felt like the Million Man March all over again. Then it was over.
CAPTION: Vendors sell Bibles, robes and other items at the convention in Tampa.
CAPTION: Rosie Ferguson, left, Sylvia Mills, center, and a fellow member of Corinth Missionary Baptist Church of Milwaukee attend the convention.