The following piece was first published in the Midwest Southern Baptist newspaper, Word & Way, in honor of Black History Month.
By Denise George
On Dec. 17, 1944, after the deadly, surprise German attack on the allies in Belgium near the German border - resulting in World War II's Battle of the Bulge - eleven black Americans serving in the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, were captured by German soldiers and brutally massacred in Wereth, Belgium. Months later, when their bodies were discovered, examiners found Bibles in some of their pockets.
These men fought bravely from Normandy to the Ardennes during the summer of 1944, operating the mighty 155mm M1 howitzers and setting military records for precision. After their deaths, however, they were forgotten. Nearly lost to history, some 70 years later their amazing story finally comes to light.
Black/white racial strife has long been part of US history. In World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces were Jim Crow segregated.
Black soldiers slept in separate barracks, held mostly support positions and often faced extreme prejudice. The one million black Americans who served in WWII had to fight battles on two fronts: the enemy overseas and racism at home.
"The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated army," Stephen Ambrose wrote in his World War II history book "Citizen Soldiers."
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the US Armed Forces.
The Problem of Racial Strife
While racial discrimination laws have changed over the years, people's hearts have often been slow to follow. Unfortunately, as a border state between the North and South, Missouri has proven to be one of the country's most fertile breeding grounds for racial strife. Among the USA's 100 largest cities, St. Louis is the fifth-most racially segregated.
In the hopes of hastening reconciliation in the midst of racial tension and conflict, the Southern Baptist Convention encourages the nation's Southern Baptist pastors and church members to participate in their annual Racial Reconciliation Sunday emphasis on Sunday, Feb. 12. A 2015 SBC resolution calls on Southern Baptists to be "faithful ambassadors of reconciliation in their personal relationships and local communities as they demonstrate the power of the Gospel to reconcile all persons in Christ."
How can white Baptist pastors and congregations in the Midwest help bring about peace and reconciliation between its black and white citizens?
Here are some practical suggestions:
- Plan a special worship service on Sunday, Feb. 12. Preach a biblical sermon on race relations and reconciliation.
- Preach a children's sermon on racial reconciliation and invite the church's youngsters up front to participate.
- Plan church-sponsored events during February that highlight race relations. Invite black community leaders and members to attend.
- Invite black war veterans to give testimonies, as well as other guests.
- Plan a joint worship and community service with an black church in your area. In Dallas, Texas, on March 2016, 18 churches, nine white and nine black, swapped pulpits on the same Sunday. Later, more than 2,000 black and white church volunteers offered a day of community service to the entire city.
- Swap preachers and pulpits one Sunday with a black church.
- Arrange monthly lunches, inviting black and white pastors together to eat, discuss relevant issues and fellowship.
- Partner with black pastors and congregations to pray together and, based on Matthew 25:44, to address community needs.
- Support each other in times of crises, as churches did in August of 2014 after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. In the midst of rioting, Ferguson's First Baptist Church invited black and white residents to a citywide prayer service. The city's civic and religious leaders stood together, encouraging calm and understanding, and praying diligently for everyone involved. After the riots, church volunteers from Passage Community Church in Florissant worked with others for weeks cleaning up devastated neighborhoods. Pastor Joe Costephens told EthicsDaily.com at the time, "Our biggest thing is to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to be known for what we do more than what we are against."
- Speak out and stand firm against racial injustices in your community. Become an active agent of peace and healing.
When Baptist pastors and congregations work together in the ministry of racial reconciliation, they allow the mutual love for the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring black and white congregations together in love and harmony.
Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion
Used in a group setting, these questions may help begin discussions between white and black pastors, church leaders, etc.
- What is the most helpful and healing response pastors and church leaders can make when the church and/or community experiences racism and racial injustice?
- What are some significant ways white and black churches can join together to serve each other and the community in Christ's name?
- How can pastors and church leaders promote racial reconciliation from the pulpit, and through church-sponsored events, workshops and classes?
- What current books can help congregations better under racial differences, history, culture, etc.?