The Rev. Bryant Wright at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta in this 2014 file photo
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

How does sin fit in as we discuss racism?

Johnson Ferry Baptist’s pastor holds out hope that faith can help us escape racial quagmire

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; — Revelation 7:9 KJV

Nearly two years have passed since a group of white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but to this day, the Rev. Bryant Wright finds the televised images incredulous.

It wasn’t so much that race-based hatred was new to him. It wasn’t. What was most troubling was how young members of the white nationalist group were.

If there was any question America had turned the corner on her racist past, the answer was staring us all in the face with tiki torches.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In many ways, what was unfolding in Charlottesville bore a striking resemblance to segregationists’ efforts during Reconstruction to roll back advances made after the Civil War. During Reconstruction — that period from roughly 1865 to 1877 — enslaved people were freed, former slaves and free blacks gained citizenship rights, and black men were granted the right to vote. African Americans, as a result, made huge strides in education, entrepreneurship and political power. Historians estimate that as many as 2,000 blacks were elected to local, state and federal offices.

THIS LIFE: RACE AND RELIGION

This is the third of a five-part series analyzing race and religion by AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples. Come back Tuesday for Part 4: One man’s journey from indifference to enlightenment

By the end of Reconstruction, when the federal government pulled troops out of the South, most of those gains were lost, and a backlash began. Racist legislators passed laws mandating segregation and restricting voting rights, effectively stripping African Americans of their constitutional rights and thus once again limiting racial progress.

For every step forward we’ve made since, it seems the country has taken two back.

RELATED: When we choose to forgive

But there has never been a break in the way racism operates in this country, said Ibram Kendi, director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center and author of the new book “How to Be an Antiracist.”

“The people have changed, but what has been persistent is inequality caused by policy defended by ideas,” Kendi said. “Now we’re living in a time in which black votes are being suppressed through voter purges, voter ID laws, exact match systems, through long lines at black precincts because they don’t have as many machines as white precincts. They are justified by this idea that there is voter fraud and that somehow voters, black voters are corrupting the system. That same idea was used to justify poll taxes, and other forms of voter suppression.”

As a child of the Deep South, I’d hoped we would’ve moved past such racist acts by now.

One of the high points of the Rev. Bryant Wright’s tenure as president of the Southern Baptist Convention was when he passed the mantle to the Rev. Fred Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, in 2012. Luter was the first African American president of the convention. 
Photo: CONTRIBUTED

In the wake of repeated police shootings of unarmed black men, the Charlottesville protest and, yes, recent tweets by President Donald Trump, I’d grown more weary.

Hence, my monthslong journey in search of answers.

Why, after so much progress and in a still mostly Christian country in which faith calls us to love others, has racism been allowed to fester?

For Wright, pastor of the 7,000-plus-member Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, the answer is quite simple — man’s sin nature.

Even as a kid watching television images of Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor turn fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful civil rights demonstrators, that much was clear.

As evil as that was, it wasn’t Wright’s problem. It seemed that way for a lot of white God-fearing Christians.

RELATED: Are white churches doing Christianity right?

But by 1974, when Wright graduated from the University of South Carolina, indifference was no longer an option. He had taken courses in African American Studies in college and read the autobiography of Malcolm X, which enlightened his understanding of African American resentment, heartache and culture. He’d even brushed up on the history of slavery. Then later as a young adult, he read Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters” about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. It opened his eyes to even greater understanding of our nation’s struggles with racism.

The Rev. Bryant Wright, senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, says racism is man’s sin problem. 
Photo: CONTRIBUTED BY SUSAN WHITLEY PHOTOGRAPHY

Much later, Wright said, he heard an interview in which King sought to explain why Asians and other immigrants to the United States fare much better than African Americans here. King’s response was other immigrants had come voluntarily. African Americas were the only group, on the other hand, brought to the country in chains.

“Just hearing that explanation was very helpful in helping me understand why racism has always been an issue in this country, but it comes back to man’s sin problem,” Wright said.

RELATED: Evangelicals and Trump: Two pastors, two views

When he considers current events, Wright said he’s worried things could get worse.

With Trump constantly fanning the racial embers, he might be right.

Indeed since the election of Barack Obama, we have seen an openness to racial animus that has not been seen since the ’60s. It isn’t that racism ceased to exist, but there is now a perceived comfort in openly expressing it.

Those young men marching in Charlottesville didn’t arrive there on their own. Their sentiments are sadly a continuation of generational feelings and views.

As he nears his final chapter as pastor of Johnson Ferry, how to lead the way out of our racial quagmire is a burden Wright feels deeply.

The church must step up, he said.

The Rev. Bryant Wright, senior pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, chats with Chris Zachery at a dinner for prospective members. Zachery and his wife have since joined the Marietta congregation. 
Photo: CONTRIBUTED

To his credit, Wright has tried to right some of the wrongs, including helping pass a Southern Baptist Convention resolution in 1995 calling for the organization to apologize for its role in slavery and asking for forgiveness.

The convention, which broke with Baptists in the North in 1845, in part, over whether slaveholders could serve as missionaries, now has about 3,000 African American congregations.

“That wouldn’t have happened had we not passed that resolution,” Wright said. “We just have to admit our past. I can’t apologize for my forefathers, but we can acknowledge our denomination has been adversely affected by a racist past.”

At the convention’s 2017 annual meeting in Phoenix, members denounced “every form of racism, including alt-right supremacy.”

And just last year, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s flagship institution, released a 71-page report on the role that racism and support for slavery played in its origin and growth.

RELATED: A black church went in search of a white church to talk about race

“The founding fathers of this school — all four of them — were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” President R. Albert Mohler Jr. wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “Many of their successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, advocated the inferiority of African Americans and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of Southern slavery.”

While there is evidence of a Christian heritage and even a strong Christian influence, Wright believes the number of people truly devoted to living out the principles of God’s word are in the minority, not a majority.

Still, he maintains, the best way to combat racism is through the good news of the Gospel, which draws people to Christ, causes them to turn from hatred and to love each other as Christ loves the church.

Asked to describe what that might look like, Wright had one word. Heaven.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Part 4: One man’s journey from indifference to enlightenment

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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