NASHVILLE, Tenn. The week of Labor Day, black Baptists will be assembling as they do each year, but simultaneously in separate cities, the result of a history of splintering during the past century.
But now there are tentative signs of cooperation among the divided branches. Leaders of the country's four major black Baptist denominations hope a joint meeting Jan. 24-27 in Nashville will forge a unified voice to address social and political issues affecting all blacks.
''It's going to be exciting,'' said the Rev. William J. Shaw, a Philadelphia pastor and president of Nashville-based National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., the oldest and largest of the four groups. ''It's an exploration of what the future can hold in terms of joint effort.''
As many as 10,000 delegates will be gathering from Shaw's group and the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.
Shaw said he met with the other denominational presidents shortly after he was elected in 1999 and discussed ways they could better coordinate initiatives. Out of that session came the January meeting, which will be the first of its kind since the groups began splintering in 1915 over policy and operational disagreements.
''It has historic significance and is an affirmation of the thing that bonds us rather than the things that have divided us,'' Shaw said.
The first division of black Baptists was between the National Baptist Convention, USA, and the National Baptist Convention of America, now based in Shreveport, La., over ownership of the convention's publishing house.
Then in 1961, the Washington-based Progressive National Baptist Convention broke away from the National Baptist USA group when the Rev. J.H. Jackson altered rules so he could continue as president. A related issue was Jackson's sharp criticism of civil rights protests led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Another split came in 1988, when the National Missionary group broke from the National Baptist Convention of America over governance and the structure of the National Baptist Publishing Board.
The National Baptist USA group faced other problems. It was shaken in 1999 when its president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, was convicted of grand theft and racketeering and served nearly five years in prison.
An investigation revealed that Lyons, then a pastor in St. Petersburg, Fla., used his position as convention president to steal an estimated $4 million to buy luxury homes and jewelry and support his mistress. Still, the 5 million-member denomination remains intact.
The Rev. Major L. Jemison, president of the Progressive National Baptists, said he hoped the January meeting ''will give us an element of unity we've never had before,'' but leaders expect to focus more on finding common ground than coming back together as one denomination.
''A lot of times we're talking about the same things, but don't always know it because we're in four different settings,'' said the Rev. George Brooks, who heads the educational programs of the National Baptist Convention of America.
While leaders plan to discuss general church business, they also hope to develop a plan to raise the concerns of black Baptists with whomever is in the White House in January.
''There has to be more focused effort to positively include minorities in the mainstream of this nation's life,'' Shaw said. ''That's in terms of ownership of economic resources, inclusion in the political structure, educational commitment, and changing the practices that make for the incarceration of so many people of color.''
The Rev. James Thomas, a Nashville pastor, said the meeting should also discuss ways to convince more blacks to get involved in public life. Political candidates have long sought support from black churches, especially during presidential races. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, for one, has spent many of his Sundays worshipping at largely black congregations.
Thomas said voting is the most powerful weapon blacks have today and he's urging them to use it Nov. 2.
''We've got to wake black America up as well as shake the Democrats and Republicans up,'' said Thomas, affiliated with the National Baptist Convention of America. ''Many black Americans have gone to sleep politically and socially.''
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