First Baptist may be the most common name for Baptist churches in America, and I am sure some enterprising researcher has already run the numbers of this obscure observation. But the name I like best is Third Baptist.
I was pastor of one once, in Owensboro, Kentucky. On my first Sunday, I introduced the slogan which I had borrowed from a Pennsylvania camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks”—Christ First, Others Second, We’re Third.
That church in Owensboro was, at one time, the largest congregation in the commonwealth meeting in the largest sanctuary of that state. That was shortly after it had been split into existence by the preaching of Methodist evangelist Sam Jones. The year was 1896.
The Third designation was chosen as a name because it was, actually, the third white Baptist church organized in the town. Black churches didn’t count then, I suppose.
Other cities have their own Third Baptist Church. Chicago, for one, and St. Louis, for another. For years, the latter was noted throughout the Baptist world, a region that stretches around the globe.
It is Third Baptist Church in San Francisco that has drawn the most attention recently. That is because, like Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, it has a very famous member—the newly installed Vice President of the United States.
Third Baptist of San Francisco was organized with the cooperation of First Baptist and Second Baptist churches, both white churches. The new church started with the name First Colored Baptist Church. The year was 1852, the height of both a gold rush to the west coast and a slavery system across the south.
Today their pastor is Amos C. Brown. Dr. Brown is a Morehouse Man, and I know what that means.
When I launched the Academy of Preachers in 2008, one place I stopped was the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Dean Lawrence Carter, now in year 41 of his illustrious tenure, welcomed me and gave me the floor to speak to his Chapel Assistants. Today my Facebook feed is filled with the comings and goings, the aspirations and achievements, the sermons and silliness of hundreds of young black preachers. It has changed my life.
Like most Baptist congregations, Third of San Francisco has a church covenant, a document that guides the living of its members (like a creed guides the thinking of members of a church). It includes these lines:
“We also unite to support and enrich our families, to train our children in religious and secular education, to be positive, just, and show the spirit of Christ in our conduct. We covenant together with dedicated hearts, willing minds, warm spirits and able bodies to ‘do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with our God’.”
That last phrase is a quote from the Bible, from the Hebrew prophet Micah.
Third Baptist Church of San Francisco has more than one motto on its web site, but the one I like best is “Family, Faith, and Fortitude”. They are going to need all of that to manage the test being thrown at them by the sudden visibility of their most famous member, the Honorable Kamala Harris.
Already white Baptist preachers in Texas have labeled her “Jezebel.”
Jezebel is a derogatory designation drawn from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Jezebel is a queen whose famous faith in the fertility god known as Baal drew the ire of the prophet Elijah. That is recorded in the book of Kings. Jezebel is also the name given to the false prophet tormenting the church at Thyatira a thousand years later. That is recorded in the book of Revelation.
In our day, the book and movie The Handmaid’s Tale featured a brothel called “Jezebel’s. In the novel The Invention of Wings Sarah Grimki makes this confession: “He turned into a recluse of a man, and I—I turned into a Jezebel of a woman.”
All in all, it’s not a good name. It stands in sharp contrast to names like Third Baptist Church, and Kamala Harris, and Vice President of the United States.
But rise to power of Kamala Harris is more than some preachers can handle. They let loose with their rude, crude, and socially unacceptable language, all in the name of Jesus, of course.
But for me: I honor her and hope to meet her some day. I know, however, I have a better chance of meeting her pastor, and worshiping in her church, and celebrating that Third Baptist Church on the west coast that has done so much for justice, mercy, and the things of God.
In the meantime, I will pray for sister Kamala and her more powerful partner, brother Joe. And also for those misguided ministers in Texas May Jesus himself bestow upon them a double dose of the mercy so many of us need.
I hope you will join me.