Nevada may not be the first place that comes to mind when the topic of racial reconciliation arises.
After all, the latest U.S. Census data reveals more than three-quarters of the state’s population is white. Plus, the Silver State is more than a thousand miles removed from the South – the region of America most known for its need to overcome a heritage of racial prejudice. But Nevada’s Southern Baptists say God is uniquely at work there breaking down racial and cultural barriers.
Two years ago, the Nevada Baptist Convention (NBC) elected its first non-Anglo president; one of the convention’s largest churches has made secular news headlines for its ministry of racial reconciliation; and the convention’s Ethnic Study Ad Hoc Committee has helped develop new ways to assist ethnic pastors in reaching their communities.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that as a result of being proactive in this area of racial reconciliation, I see great things coming in the future,” NBC President Greg Fields told Baptist Press. “I see a stronger convention. I see greater participation and a desire to come alongside our brothers regardless of race, ethnicity or even location within the state. We see that it’s Christ that has drawn us, and He is our focus.”
Fields, an African American who pastors the multiethnic Nellis Baptist Church in Las Vegas, became the first non-Anglo to serve as NBC president when he was elected in 2014. He said he was not elected solely because of his race, yet race was among the reasons he emerged as “the best man for the job.”
“To have someone of ethnicity, such as myself, serving really opened communication [and] brought to the Nevada Baptist Convention a greater hope for serving among those of ethnicity,” said Fields, who was reelected in 2015. “… In conversations and different meetings, I’m hearing excitement about the direction that Nevada Baptists have taken as a result of my being able to serve as president.”
Nevada Baptists, Fields said, have been for several years working to overcome pain and division stemming from past “injustices” and “the perception of privilege for Anglos [over] non-Anglos” in Baptist life and elsewhere.
“Now that there’s more of an emphasis that there isn’t a preference or privilege within the convention,” Fields said, some Nevada Baptists find it easier to view one another as “my brother” or “my sister regardless of ethnicity.”
‘Something needed to be done’
Screen capture from Vimeo
Las Vegas pastors Vance Pitman, right, of Hope Church and Robert Fowler of Victory Missionary Baptist Church encouraged racial unity last summer at a joint worship service of the two congregations.
Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas, helped believers display that spirit of brotherhood last summer following the murder of nine black Christians by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
When he heard about the shooting, Pitman, who is white, called Robert Fowler, pastor of the predominately African American Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas, a National Baptist church, and asked if their congregations could hold a joint worship service to promote racial reconciliation.
“When the Charleston shooting happened, I just felt like something needed to be done,” Pitman said. “And so I reached out to Dr. Fowler and said, ‘Man, what about us doing something joint?’”
Fowler “responded very positively,” Pitman said, “and he even said, ‘Vance, normally when something like this happens, it’s our culture that reaches out to your culture to do something like this. Just the fact that your church reached out to us has got my people very curious and very excited.’”
The two churches came together in late June for a multiethnic worship service drawing nearly 1,500 people. The gathering included local, state and national political leaders and was reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
As part of the service, attendees filled out cards with their names, phone numbers and social media information then exchanged them with people of other races and cultures. The goal, Pitman said, was “to just get to know one another” in the “regular rhythms of life – lunches, dinners, weekends.”
More than six months later, members of the two congregations continue to report ongoing, casual fellowship.
Division because of overt racial prejudice is largely a phenomenon of the past, Pitman said, but Christians continue to cluster in racially homogenous churches because they don’t feel comfortable in the cultures of other racial groups. That’s why cross-cultural friendships are among the keys to lasting racial reconciliation among Christians – as Pitman has learned firsthand.
For example, he has observed that Hope’s worship pastor, who is black, gets stopped by airport security when they travel together far more frequently than does Pitman. And in discussing sexuality at church, Pitman learned “the talk” refers to something different in white and black homes. For Anglos, it refers to a discussion of sex while in black families the phrase also references a discussion about how young men are expected to behave in public around authority figures.
‘A bag of Skittles’
On any given Sunday, Hope “looks like a bag of Skittles,” Pitman said. The congregation is 40 percent white, 25 percent African American, 15 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic, with members of other racial and ethnic groups included as well, according to Pitman’s estimate. In all, the church includes members from 45 different language groups.
That means cultural differences must be considered in worship planning as well as personal relationships. Accordingly, services vary their style to reflect the worship patterns of many different cultures. Some days, worship looks like a Passion concert, others a black gospel gathering and others an international festival.
“I think now we’ve grown to an acceptance of people of other colors,” Pitman said. “But what we haven’t yet done is get to the place of understanding what that different culture represents, their history, what they’ve been through, their experience and what it’s like to be my brother.”
NBC executive director Kevin White has stressed the necessity of understanding other cultures on the state-convention level as well. Working with the Ethnic Study Ad Hoc Committee approved by the convention in 2013, White has conducted listening sessions across the state with pastors of different racial groups.
“We’ve just talked about: How can we engage your community? How can we support your churches? How can we reach people?” White said.
To help reach various racial and ethnic groups with the gospel, White brought a Chilean and a Korean onto the convention’s ministry staff and has worked with churches like Hope to plant new congregations among under-reached ethnic groups. The NBC has planted churches among Iranians and Pakistanis in recent years and has plans to launch a Vietnamese church soon.
‘The nations are coming here’
Such steps, White said, are not optional in a state with one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in America and 144 different languages spoken in Las Vegas alone.
“I just want to reach all people,” White said. “And the nations are coming here.”
Harry Watson, director of missions for the Southern Nevada Baptist Association, which includes Las Vegas, said that in Nevada’s largest city, there are 52 non-English-speaking congregations which worship in 17 different languages. To reach the 800,000 Las Vegas residents whose primary language is not English, the association is starting more ethnic and foreign-language churches than Anglo churches.
Pitman noted racial reconciliation is one result of believing the gospel.
“The gospel is a gospel of reconciliation,” he said. “And we believe that doesn’t just mean reconciliation with God. That is obviously a major piece of the gospel. But we know there’s been reconciliation with God … when we begin to have reconciliation with one another.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)