Coping with COVID: History

On Sunday, September 27, 2020, UBC will celebrate our 112th birthday. In this time of pandemic, it’s not feasible to have the usual cake & punch fellowship in the back of the sanctuary. Instead, we’ll be celebrating with a UBC story emailed each day. So, grab a piece of cake, cookie or a cold cup of punch and enjoy this walk down memory lane! May God’s richest blessings abide around you!


Racial Reconciliation

University Baptist Church has been on a long journey of racial reconciliation. The journey has been filled with stops and starts, but significant steps forward were initiated by Blake Smith, who became the church’s pastor in 1943. In 1945 the church shared an “exchange of worship with a Negro congregation,” after which UBC voted to end segregated seating. There are conflicting stories about the first African American to join the congregation, complicated by incomplete church records as well as the pastor’s resistance to publicity in the matter. According to a 1958 article by church member Joseph M. Dawson, though, UBC’s first African American member joined in 1950. He is identified as a Sergeant Wilson, then serving in the Air Force at Kelly Field in San Antonio. Through the rest of that decade, however, most African Americans attending UBC were graduate students at the University of Texas.

In 1956 UT desegregated its undergraduate program, and one of the first to take advantage of the new admissions policy was Barbara Smith (later, Barbara Smith Conrad). In an incident that received national attention, Smith was chosen to perform in the opera Dido and Aeneas at UT, but in the spring of 1957 she was removed from the cast when some school administrators and state legislators objected on the basis of her race. As it happened, in the week when the controversy became public, Smith was scheduled to sing “Let Us Worship Together on Our Knees” at UBC, where she was a member of the choir. During the solo, a church member described as “an elderly lady of the Old South” was moved to tears, afterward declaring, “When I heard Barbara, my prejudices fell off like an outworn garment.”

Throughout most of Blake Smith’s twenty-six years as pastor, UBC displayed a simple statement at various locations in the building: “People of all nations and races are welcome.” The words were not merely an expression of general goodwill, but a public affirmation of the church’s conscious intent to shed the burden of segregation. A quarter of a century later, though, it was clear that the church still needed to do more to promote racial reconciliation, so in the summer of 1996 pastor Larry Bethune led a study of race and religion. During the study, many church members signed a “Covenant for Racial Reconciliation.” In part, the statement said the following:

We, individually and corporately, submit to God and covenant with each other to:
1)   Repent and seek forgiveness for racially biased beliefs and attitudes in our own hearts and consequent behaviors.
2)   Speak out against the sin of racism and for the Biblical imperative of reconciliation.
3)   Cultivate personal relationships with members of other races.

Bethune continued to engage UBC in racial reconciliation, partnering with other area religious leaders to form Austin Clergy Committed to Racial Reconciliation. In 2001 Bethune was serving as the “convener” for the group when it drew the attention of Tom Spencer, host of the local PBS program Austin at Issue. Spencer dedicated an hour-long episode to the organization, inviting the participation of one hundred ministers and lay leaders, including UBC members David Bragg, Olin Clemons, David Stine, and Darlene Grant. Among the diverse points raised were frank acknowledgements that we fear difference, that some believe race should not be addressed as a political issue in churches, and that the physical barrier of Interstate 35 dividing east and west Austin is “not necessarily accidental.” But the group also avowed its goal of providing opportunities for positive dialog and action. Among the many compelling stories offered by the participants, one by Darlene Grant highlighted the sense of sacrifice that is necessary to find genuine reconciliation. She explained that, before joining UBC, she had always belonged to African American churches, and some of her family members disapproved of her decision to join a predominantly white congregation. She affirmed, though, that “we have to go to the pain and the anger and the frustration” before we can truly learn to love each other.

In recent years, as national activists have highlighted the systemic racism that contributes to the disproportionate deaths of black Americans at the hands of police officers, the members of UBC have continued to seek understanding and racial reconciliation. In July and August of this year, UT graduate student Nathan Leach led an online Sunday School class studying Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist. As an outgrowth of the study, UBC members have launched an initiative, coordinated by pastor Amelia Fulbright, to engage actively with anti-racist leaders, churches, and other organizations in Austin.

The problem of racism is enormous and complex, beyond the ability of any of us to resolve—yet we are called to examine ourselves and to take what actions we can. At the corner of 22nd and San Antonio Streets, where thousands of people pass daily on their way to and from the UT campus, UBC’s marquee states simply, “Black Lives Matter.” This affirmation is one small way of standing with the oppressed and signaling our intention to embody God’s love in the pursuit of social justice.

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