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Local Southern Baptist leaders applaud apology for racism

The Southern Baptist Convention's recent history-making apology to African-Americans for condoning racism continues to reverberate in churches across the country.

In Citrus County, Southern Baptist Church officials applaud the action as a needed step toward reconciliation but maintain that racism has not been an issue here.

"We ourselves are not prejudiced. We feel that the blood that runs through our veins is the same as the blood that runs through a black man's veins," said John Fizer, associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Homosassa.

"We have no bigotry at all in our church. We welcome them (blacks) with open arms, if they want to come to our church," he said.

At its annual gathering last month, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a "Resolution on Racial Reconciliation." Quoting from the document, Don Hepburn of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville said, "We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and or perpetuating individual and systematic racism . . . We ask for forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters."

The Southern Baptist Convention was created in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The church was silent or actively opposed to civil rights during the 1970s, and many congregations excluded blacks. The denomi-nation first declared racism a sin in 1989.

L. B. Thomason, pastor of First Baptist Church of Crystal River, welcomed the announcement from the Atlanta conference.

"I am glad for the resolution," he said. "I think it is very difficult to rectify mistakes of the past that go that far back. But . . . the more important thing now is our relationship in the present and the way we work together in the present.

"I would hope that this will make a difference in the way they (blacks) feel about Southern Baptist churches. . . . I hope they (blacks) will feel a sense of Christian brotherhood. After all, we are one in Christ," he said.

The Rev. Leroy Bellamy, pastor of the predominantly black Grace Temple Church of The Living God in Floral City, believes the resolution and apology will be more than just words on a document.

"I think the time has come for people to realize that racism isn't worthwhile. I think people are going to change," he said.

Bellamy has seen many changes in Citrus County in his 84 years. In recent years, he said, he has noticed that the gap between the races in Citrus has narrowed.

But that has not always been the case.

"I work with all of the churches now, but it wasn't always that way," he said. "At one time here, you just didn't go to white churches, because of the racism. Lord, yes, that has sure changed now," he said.

"I feel comfortable going to white churches now, just like I am right at home. I know it will take time before it totally changes, but I know it will because we have some good strong churches in Citrus County."

Bellamy said "black" and "white" churches have persisted in Citrus County more because of cultural reasons than because of racism.

Greg Art, pastor of First Baptist Church of Floral City, agrees.

"There are black folks who have black churches and white folks who have white churches," he said. "It doesn't really have anything to do with religions, but cultures."

Thomason said the isolation goes both ways. "I am not sure that they (blacks) want their religious practices to be swallowed up in white worship or vice versa. They do not want to lose their identify or uniqueness."

Southern Baptist leaders acknowledge there is room for improvement in bringing black and white worshipers together. Of the 2,350 Southern Baptist churches and missions in Florida, only 80 are African-American.

Joe Maddox, director of missions with the Alachua Baptist Association in Inverness, which includes Citrus County, said local Southern Baptist churches are going to be reaching out to the black community.

"We as an association have opened our doors up to the African-American community . . . and welcome you to be a part of our association to be trained by our leaders and take part in our activities," he said.

Hepburn, of the Florida Baptist Convention, said the church "is making significant strides in the development of mission congregations among ethnic, language and cultural groups, including African-Americans.

"Some leaders believed this mission work could be enhanced if the Southern Baptist would repudiate its historical past to break down barriers in reaching all with the gospel message, groups such as African-Americans," he said.

Hepburn said the Southern Baptist Convention is putting action behind its words.

"In Florida we have a goal of starting 100 African-American congregations each year for the next five years . . . and have committed financial resources and personnel throughout the state to make this goal a reality," he said.

He said the association has set aside about $250,000 for the first year of its five-year plan to start new congregations throughout Florida.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.