The Rev. Eddie Jones receives most of his $25,000 pastor's salary from the Southern Baptist Convention. His small black congregation got a $30,000 grant from the denomination to buy three acres for a new church, and members worship in a double-wide trailer donated by the denomination.
Soon, a mission team of Southern Baptist laborers plans to converge on the church property in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville and provide free labor to build Jones a new church.
Jones is among a growing number of blacks who have turned to the virtually all-white Southern Baptist Convention, which has launched an aggressive and controversial campaign to bring 400 new black congregations into its fold each year.
Jones said he is willing to forgive the Southern Baptists, who date their existence to 1845 when they declared their support of slavery and split from Northern Baptists.
"If you love Jesus and you work hard, you can get any achievement you want in the Southern Baptist Convention," said Jones, 35, who joined the denomination seven years ago after he said a local black Baptist affiliate gave him no help in starting his church.
Officials of the Southern Baptist Convention said the goal of their new campaign is not integration but to win "unchurched" souls in the evangelizing tradition of their faith. But their effort at wooing blacks is increasing tension with the nation's traditional black denominations, which charge paternalism and say Southern Baptists are using money, materials and organizational might to poach on souls.
"It is a contest between their resources and our sense of loyalty," said Caesar A.W. Clark Sr., vice president of National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., the nation's largest black denomination with 8 million members. "I do not believe that one's loyalty and one's sense of heritage ought to be for sale."
The move by blacks into the Southern Baptist Convention "is the most damaging thing that could ever happen to black folk," said Bobby Joe Saucer, the former dean of Morehouse School of Religion, a historically black school in Atlanta, and an executive with the multiracial American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
"I don't see how in the world, for money and support, they could gravitate toward the Southern Baptist Convention and have integrity and find comfort," Saucer said.
The fight to win souls in the nation's black communities is not new but it is tugging harder than ever at the fabric of traditional black Baptist life, which has produced some of the nation's most prominent black leaders, according to church historians.
The campaign by the nation's largest Protestant denomination comes as increasing numbers of blacks are graduating from Southern Baptist seminaries with no church to serve in traditionally black denominations and as black Baptist ministers are searching for creative ways to reach a younger, better-educated generation of worshipers, according to historians.
"The Southern Baptist Convention is responding oftentimes to the initiatives of black folks who are saying now is the time to move in," said James M. Washington, professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of "Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power."
Southern Baptists provide church loans, educational training and materials, retirement benefits for clergy and subsidized salaries that are no match for the resources of the nation's four leading black denominations, church leaders said.
In North Highlands, Calif., near Sacramento, the Rev. C.M. Cummings said Southern Baptist educational programs, including marriage enrichment and financial training, offer fresh possibilities for his 3,000-member congregation, which is predominantly black and consists primarily of "boomer babies."
Cummings said leaders of the black denominations often are too set in their ways to accept change. "They have put up an Iron Curtain as far as allowing the baby boomers to come in," he said. "The old regime is there and, if a younger person tries to inject ideas, they treat them like kids."
Of 37,000 congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention, more than 1,500 are black, and convention officials hope to increase that to 5,000 in the next 10 years. They have targeted urban areas where the black population is expected to grow by 5 million in that time.
The campaign to plant new churches in black communities began intensively two years ago with reorganization of the Southern Baptist Convention's Home Mission Board in Atlanta. A division was created to reach out to black churches.
"There have been churches planted before by the convention in predominantly black communities but not intentionally a national focus," said Michael Cox, associate director of the division. "It definitely is a large goal, a monumental goal."
Southern Baptist officials asserted that the campaign is neither a public-relations ploy to enhance the denomination's image nor an attempt to pad membership rolls. "It's intended to be obedience to what we understand the great commission of Christ to be," said Emmanuel McCall, who heads the division.
With the help of Southern Baptist consultants, local and state officials of the denomination canvass communities, identifying through surveys called "lasers and probes" neighborhoods where churches are not meeting needs of the black community.
A church "starter," typically a seminary student or pastor, is sent to help the congregation take root, and the congregation becomes a mission, McCall said. A sponsoring local church then supports the new congregation financially for as many as five years.
McCall said the denomination discourages "church planting" in areas that already include black Baptist churches but said it happens occasionally when a pastor makes the initiative on his own.
Several established black Baptist churches have found a new fellowship home in the denomination.
In East Memphis, Tenn., the predominantly black Old Salem Baptist Church dropped its independent status one year ago to become Southern Baptist. It is one-half mile from a black Baptist church affiliated with the National Baptist Convention.
The pastor, the Rev. Robert Dickerson, said his 150-member congregation was deeded a $350,000 church building that had been emptied in the white flight of Southern Baptists from the neighborhood. Dickerson's church plans computer classes and legal counseling and expects to start a day-care center in one year.
"The benefits are enormous," Dickerson said. "They've got all kinds of benefits that the black Baptists cannot afford. . . . Our ministry was growing, and now we can better serve the black community."
The campaign to increase the number of black congregations reflects "a radical transformation going on in the Southern Baptist Convention in the last 20 years on the point of race," McCall said.
For many blacks, however, the 15-million-member denomination remains stigmatized by its support of slavery 145 years ago. For generations, the denomination has been an influential force in shaping conservative southern culture and values, embracing many of the positions that have swept the Republican Party into power.
"Race relations has always been a struggle in the Southern Baptist Convention," said William Leonard, a church historian at the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville. "Since slavery times, so much of our literal interpretation of the Bible has lent itself to support slavery and later to support segregation.
"The convention has been forced to come to grips with changing times. The problem is when you move from blatant racism or implied racism, paternalism is a step from that. That's a major problem for us."
Some black Baptists said they were not surprised when a white trustee of the denomination's Christian Life Commission, which handles social and moral concerns and promotes racial harmony, remarked two years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a "fraud" and that apartheid no longer existed in South Africa and "was beneficial when it did, because it meant separate development."
Richard Land, the commission's executive director, said the trustee's comments at an annual commission meeting were quickly denounced and do not reflect positive strides that have helped make the religious body more racially and ethnically diverse.
Southern Baptist officials said their new campaign is intended to allow blacks the freedom of enjoying their distinctive worship style.
But some critics suggest that Southern Baptists' boasts of racial inclusiveness while they make no concerted effort to integrate black and white sanctuaries is hypocrisy, considering the denomination's segregationist past.
About 30 percent of black Southern Baptist congregations remain aligned with the black National Baptist Convention, but virtually no white Southern Baptist churches are also aligned with black denominations.
"Quite often there is a paternalistic mentality," said the Rev. Ronald Bobo, pastor of a black Baptist church in St. Louis who received Southern Baptist seminary training. "It's 'we will take care of you. You don't know. We will teach you. We will show you.' It's not give and take."
According to Washington, the historian, the Southern Baptist campaign perpetuates racial polarization at a time when blacks and whites most need to be brought together.
"The church shouldn't be aping society," he said. "It should be shaping it. It's a shameful shell game, and there's no denomination that is above it."