Douglas Avilesbernal asked me to write a column about Lakeshore’s diversity for the Evergreen Baptist Association newsletter. What follows is that column. Some of you will have read it online and some in the EBA newsletter. Please excuse the repetition. However, the goal of becoming an anti-racist congregation is important enough that I am sharing the column in multiple contexts.
Evergreen Baptist Association Newsletter
Jim Hopkins, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church
Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church was founded as the First Baptist Church of Brooklyn on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt in 1860. Over the 161 years of our history, we have changed names (FBC Brooklyn, Tenth Avenue Baptist Church, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church), we have changed buildings and we have changed from being an almost exclusively white congregation to being one of Oakland’s most diverse congregations. In terms of race, we are approximately 45% African-American, 45% Euro-American, 7% Asian American, 2% Latino/a American and 1% Native-American.
Our diversity is not accidental. It is a gift of the Spirit. It is the result of decisions made over many years. It is the result of making mistakes and being willing to learn from them. It is the result of vision, courage, determination, resilience and repentance. It is the result of believing that, as we see in the book of Acts, Phillip from Judea and the Eunuch from Ethiopia belong in the same chariot, the same Bible class and the same waters of baptism.
Some of the decisions that have helped LABC become, and remain, a diverse congregation are:
- In the 1950’s it worked to integrate our neighborhood helping an African- American family buy a home in what had been a “whites only” area of the city.
- In the 1960’s it actively encouraged the families of color moving into Lakeshore neighborhood to participate in the life of the church.
- In the 1970’s it expanded its welcome to include gay and lesbian persons.
- In the 1980’s it began to recognize the importance of hiring ministerial staff members of color.
- In the 1990’s it began using community organizing as a vehicle to advocate for local, state, national laws and policies that address racial inequities
- In the 2000’s it recognized the importance of a more determined effort to honor diverse styles of worship.
- In the 2010’s it welcomed The San Francisco Kachin Baptist Church as a ministry partner.
- In the early 2020’s, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it upgraded its technology so that people did not have to come to the church in order to be part of the church.”
At this point I need to be very clear. We have not arrived. Many of the decisions listed above remain aspirational. We have much work to do. If we want to move from being diverse to being inter-connected, we have a training or two to participate in. If we want to move from being interracial to being anti-racist, we have some baggage we need to get rid of. If we want to move from being mono-cultural to being truly multicultural, there is some truth we need to hear and changes we need to make. These things can happen but they won’t “just happen.”
As we move forward, we have much to learn from the Bible. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright says it well. “The church was the original multicultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.”
As we move forward, we have much to learn from the prophets of previous generations such as Howard Thurman. In his book Jesus And The Disinherited, published in 1949, he writes. “Hatred often begins in a situation where there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary gestures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness…it is clear that modern life is so impersonal that there is always the opportunity for the seeds of hate to grow unmolested.”
As we move forward, we have much to learn from the current experts in anti-racism, writers like Michelle Alexander, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Wendell Griffen, Heather McGhee and Jemar Tisby. These nationally known scholars join with local, regional and national American Baptist leaders such as Natalie Wimberly, the co-chair of the ABCUSA Anti-Racism Task Force, in urging us to “be curious about our discomfort.”
We have reflection to do. We have repentance to engage in. We have reparations to make. In this work we have each other, a congregation that has demonstrated a willingness to work, witness and worship in ways that communicate welcome, acceptance, and appreciation. We have a community that is willing, at least some of the time, to learn of the unconscious ways we communicate “you are a problem” to those we seek to welcome.
In this work, we are part of a regional family which recognizes that in order for the beloved community to become a reality both hearts and structures need to change and that sometimes structures change before hearts do.
I appreciate Doug’s invitation to write this reflection. I pray that it reflects the fact that LABC has learned a few things while still having much to learn. I trust that it communicates an openness to the “new things” of the Spirit. I hope that it demonstrates an understanding that, if we are to become the beloved community, we must not grow weary.
(Jim has been the Senior Pastor at LABC since 1989)