My trip to Phoenix for the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention has been eventful, and a little uncomfortable. My wife was unable to come with me, as she is about a thousand weeks pregnant; I love traveling, but traveling alone is not my favorite thing. This is my first time in Phoenix other than zooming through on the Interstate. Navigating a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people is very different from my little town of 7,000 in Oklahoma. The culture here is different. Yesterday, I rode the train downtown for a meeting and discovered just how different the culture is. None of this is meant to demean Phoenix—just to point out that I have been outside my comfort zone a lot this week.
I came into town a few days early to attend a conference on Native American ministry at First Indian Baptist Church. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. As a mixed-blood Choctaw, I never know how I will be received. I have memories from childhood of some of the looks my pale-skinned family received at Indian Health Service clinics. (Yes, I know that’s a minor thing—my darker-skinned ancestors were forcibly marched to Oklahoma. I can handle disapproving looks.) My only point is I never know how I will be received and whether my complexion will result in my not being seen as a “real” Indian. It made me a little anxious to walk into my first such conference. What I discovered, instead, over three days of meetings, was that none of the other participants cared what I looked like. Among these brothers and sisters in Christ, I was welcomed and treated as a friend and fellow laborer. We had a common purpose in wanting to bridge the cultural barriers and help our native peoples find hope in Jesus Christ. Appearances did not matter (other than to a visiting journalist who said I looked out of place in a suit).
As we worshiped together, learned together, and fellowshipped together, I saw that the people of First Indian and the Fellowship of Native American Christians (FONAC) really believe what the Apostle Paul said:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).
I am grateful for the time I spent with them.
On Sunday morning, I got confused and went to the wrong church. I ended up at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Phoenix, though I was actually looking for a similarly named Southern Baptist church. I told the pastor that I was visiting because I was in town for the SBC meeting. Before long, I realized I had gone to the wrong church—an Independent Baptist Church. You may be wondering why that’s a big deal.
It’s not a big deal to me; I have backgrounds in Independent, Southern, and Missionary Baptist churches, and I can get along with anyone who is gracious about our differences. Generally, we are mission-minded conservative Baptists with a high view of Scripture; who believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection; who believe Jesus died in our place and that we receive salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We have a lot of commonalities; we have some disagreements, which we should recognize. But in the end, we’re on the same side.
But it can be a huge deal to some. Some in each of these camps can be antagonistic toward one or more of the others over what I consider secondary beliefs or even cultural differences.
In essence, I worried that I might be ostracized for being one of those Southern Baptists. Believe me, I’ve seen it. I’ve even been antagonistic myself at times. To my great surprise and relief, they were not. Even knowing that I was one of those Southern Baptists, the pastor and church members welcomed me warmly. The pastor invited me to sit with him and his family because they had a guest speaker. They invited me to come to the pulpit and close in prayer. I stayed for almost an hour after the service, visiting with the people. I was even invited to lunch but had to decline so I could make it back to First Indian for my next meeting.
I feared the cold shoulder from people who were just a little bit different. Instead, in this city where I knew absolutely no one, I found instant camaraderie among brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, you may be wondering if there’s a point to this. There is. As a mixed-blood Choctaw and a Southern Baptist pastor, I was worried I would not be accepted by the more tribally-connected at First Indian or by the Independent Baptists at Thomas Road. But what I found was two groups of people who love God and others.
It occurred to me that this is what everyone should find in our churches. Love and acceptance. Not accommodation of sin, but a loving reception of people who were made in God’s image and for whom Christ died. The world feels like we look down on them and we will never accept them. We need to go out of our way to demonstrate love to everyone around us, Christian or not.
That doesn’t mean waiting for them to come to us and telling them we’re glad they’re at Sunday services. That means leaving our four walls and having genuine relationships with others and showing them by our actions that we love them, even as we tell them how Jesus loved them so much that He laid down His life for them. Genuine love is demonstrated, recognizable, and evidence of God’s Spirit within us.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (I John 4:7).
I am grateful for the love and acceptance I found this week among the Indians and the Independents. It makes me want to work harder to show that kind of love to others before they come to my church.
PS: If you’re ever in Phoenix, I highly recommend both of these churches.
- On the north side, First Indian Baptist Church is located at 2205 W Georgia Ave, off of I-17, between Bethany Home Rd and Camelback Rd.
- On the west side, Thomas Road Baptist Church is located at 5735 W Thomas Rd, between 55th and 59th Avenues.