Black and white in Georgia: About those two First Baptists that AP discovered in Macon

The Associated Press has a series that it has dubbed "Divided America."

The wire service describes the series as "AP's ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions — and in some cases attempts at reconciliation — in American society."

Yes, religion is one of the topics that the series has covered, including veteran AP Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll's in-depth feature this week on two First Baptist Churches in Macon, Ga. — one black and one white:

More on that story in a moment.

But first, a little background: A few months ago, I praised an earlier religion installment in the "Divided America" series, also written by Zoll:

However, not all my fellow GetReligionistas (past and present) were as complimentary of Zoll's piece: 

So here we go again: I'm going to praise (mostly) Zoll's 2,400-word takeout, just like I did last time. Will this spark another GetReligionista clash? I can't say for certain, but I sure hope so. If you ask me, this would be a much more exciting website if more professional-wrestling-style clashes broke out among the contributors. (I kid. I kid. Mostly.)

What did I like about it? Let's see: The rich detail. The precise history. The real-people sources — from the black and white pastors to ordinary church members.

It's just an engaging, insightful story from the very top:

MACON, Ga. (AP) — There are two First Baptist Churches in Macon — one black and one white. They sit almost back-to-back, separated by a small park, in a hilltop historic district overlooking downtown.
"We're literally around the corner from each other," said the Rev. Scott Dickison, pastor of the white church.
About 170 years ago, they were one congregation, albeit a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race.
"I thought, 'First Baptist, First Baptist?' There are two First Baptists right down the street from each other and I always wondered about it, " said Moore, a public school teacher.
Then, two years ago, Dickison and the pastor of the black church, the Rev. James Goolsby, met over lunch and an idea took shape: They'd try to find a way the congregations, neighbors for so long, could become friends. They'd try to bridge the stubborn divide of race.

I'd urge you to read it all and see if you agree with my assessment.

The story did leave me with a couple of questions. One relates to the denominational affiliations of these two First Baptist Churches. The story mentions that the white church became Southern Baptist. But later, AP notes that the two congregations have "pledged to work together under the auspices of the New Baptist Covenant, an organization formed by President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists." Carter, as you know, is no longer Southern Baptist.

My question: Is the white church still Southern Baptist? AP doesn't say. But based on the "Who We Are" page on its website, it doesn't appear so. That page mentions the church's ties to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which splintered from the Southern Baptist Convention. I also wondered about the black church's affiliation (it's National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., according to its website). While acknowledging that space is finite, even for a long story like this week's AP piece, I wonder if there's a Southern Baptist church near the two First Baptist Churches and how it's responding to the racial issues highlighted.

My other question relates to this line of the story:

The South is dotted with cities that have two First Baptist Churches.

This is news to me (although maybe it shouldn't be). But I found myself wishing for a few examples of these cities where this is the case. I even think a sidebar exploring the situation in those cities, compared to Macon, would have been interesting.

Then again, one of the strengths of the AP piece is that it focuses on two churches in one city and shines a spotlight on their specific story. In other words, I've reached the "I want to have my cake and eat it, too" point of the critique.

That probably means it's time for me to stop typing because I've said enough.

If there's any rebuttal from my fellow GetReligionistas, I'm sure it'll be forthcoming soon. 

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