Just months after planting Kingdom Life Church in Simpsonville in 2003, Alex Sands realized the enormity of the task.
“It wasn’t long until I figured out that I didn’t know what I was doing, and could really get in trouble. I could go to jail,” he laughs years later. “We figured out we needed some help. I went to the Greenville Baptist Association office … and I just walked in.”
Joel Rainey, associational missionary at the time, greeted Sands, listened to his concerns, offered help and referred him to various workshops. “And then he asked me if I knew about the Southern Baptist Convention, and like most African Americans, I didn’t know. He gave me the Baptist Faith and Message, and then he said, ‘I want you to consider being assessed by our group at the state level.’ I said OK.”
Today, Sands is making history as the first African American president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC), joined by the first African American vice president Ron Henderson, senior pastor of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in Spartanburg. It is the first time the SCBC’s top two officers have been Black.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Sands said. “It has opened doors for me to really speak places, speak into situations maybe we wouldn’t be able to before. And you know I love the convention. … I haven’t been as invested as say at the national, but here at the local level, I have friendships, partnerships here that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Henderson considers it an honor to serve the convention “and also be the one to hold Alex’s arms up, as he is the first ever African American to be the president for the state convention. Which I think is a great choice, because he’s the right person for the right time, for this season that we’re in in America, and also in the state of South Carolina.”
Henderson calls the current season one of “separation,” “racism,” “hate” and “choosing of sides” in America.
“I just feel America is a divided nation right now,” he said, “and the (SCBC) theme this year is to Advance Together. And I just believe if America is going to come together, it’s not going to happen in the secular world. It has to happen with the church. If the church doesn’t take its rightful place – because we’re at the crossroads right now in America. If we choose wrong, we lose.”
Henderson believes it is critical for the “church to come together in one accord.” Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, which he has led since 2014, is multiracial, with Henderson describing it as 70% African American, 25% white, and 2% Hispanic.
Henderson has served on the SCBC Racial Reconciliation Roundtable, a monthly gathering of Black and white pastors for confidential discussions on issues surrounding race. Both Henderson and Sands serve on the SCBC Racial Reconciliation Task Force.
Gary Hollingsworth, SCBC executive director-treasurer, said the task force has helped the SCBC become more diverse through strategies including education and action, and is among strategic steps aimed at inclusivity.
“We are serious and intentional about taking steps toward racial reconciliation and the election of these men is more than symbolic; it is significant,” Hollingsworth said. “We have found that communication, respect and genuine brotherly love based on the gospel are the factors that lead to authentic reconciliation.”
Hollingsworth describes Sands as a “a godly and capable pastor and leader,” and Henderson as “a vital member of our executive board.”
The benefits of Sands’ involvement in Southern Baptist life have been reciprocal.
“The way it turned out,” he said of his becoming Southern Baptist in 2004, “the state gave us financial support. We bought a building. We had a sponsor church. … And then we became a sponsor for a church plant.
“So that was something that was different, a predominantly African American church sponsoring an Anglo church plant,” Sands said. “That was kind of neat, but we felt like that was what we needed to do to serve. And then in 2008 was when I actually got connected and working at the state convention. I served on the executive board of the convention. That kind of started (my) convention life and everything else.”
As president, Sands hopes to promote the theme Advance Together through events such as the Feb. 18 Impact Conference at Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia. Sands would like to see SCBC churches active in helping the state combat the COVID-19 pandemic, an outreach he believes can help advance the gospel.
“I pray about this every day,” he said. “We have 2,100 churches in this convention, and we have a virus that is running rampant. I know that we have health systems that need help, that could use the churches’ support to help communicate the message about the vaccine, provide access for people in their community. We have churches that are positioned strategically that can help, to be there and be of service to the community.
“That’s a way we can advance the gospel. Because we present ourselves as, we are on one accord to solve this issue that is taking people’s lives on a daily basis. And then the whole mental health issues that are going to come as a result of all this. Our church can speak into that.”
Sands is also focused on diversity in small groups, and points out his friendship with SCBC President-elect Wayne Bray, pastor of Simpsonville First Baptist Church, a majority white congregation about five miles from Kingdom Life Church. In the SCBC, president-elects are elected each year and must serve a year before assuming the role of president, as Sands was chosen as president-elect in Nov. 2019.
Kingdom Life and Simpsonville First partner together on various initiatives and are forming small groups intentionally composed of members of both churches.
“In order to really grow as a disciple, you need to be in relationship with people who are different from you,” Sands said, “because that’s really when you get the challenge. If everyone is just like you, then it ends up being an echo chamber.
“But when you can have relationships with those who are different, think differently, and yet still stay in relationship for the sake of the gospel … that’s really maturity. That’s really being a mature disciple.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)