Oakhurst Baptist celebrates 100 years

Oakhurst Baptist Church, a progressive and inclusive congregation in Decatur, Ga., celebrates 100 years of ministry Sept. 21-22.

By Bob Allen

A progressive and radically inclusive Baptist congregation celebrates its 100th anniversary this weekend in Atlanta.

Constituted in 1913, Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., sparked controversy in the 1960s as one of the first Southern Baptist churches to integrate. The tradition of bucking trends carried on in the 1970s with decisions to ordain women as deacons and to the gospel ministry, and in the 1980s with innovations that grew into national ministries including the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the news journal Baptists Today.

oakhurst buildingLater the church changed its covenant to include anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, leading to its ouster from the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1999.

Oakhurst’s church covenant rejects “any status in this fellowship in terms of church office, possessions, education, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, mental ability, physical ability or other distinctions.”

That trajectory began in the 1960s when many urban churches were moving from neighborhoods in racial transition to suburbs in a trend subsequently termed “white flight.” Oakhurst’s membership dropped from 1,300 to 500 after the church voted in 1967 to welcome African-American members.

After a decade of struggle, the congregation decided in 1969 to abandon plans to move to a new location, and instead, invest its future in ministry to a community that was changing from white to black.

That prompted controversy in 1971, when Oakhurst Pastor John Nichol asked the Georgia Baptist Convention to instruct trustees of Georgia Baptist Children’s Homes to implement an open-door policy of accepting children of all races.

Nichol explained that some of his black church members needed services of the home, but he was told by children's home officials that they would not be accepted unless the convention in annual session so ordered.

After “brief but intense debate,” Baptist Press recorded, messengers voted by about 2-1 to defeat Nichol’s proposal and leave the “delicate matter” to the discretion of the children’s home administrator and trustees.

Oakhurst lanny melanieOakhurst elected what were believed to be the first two female deacons in a Georgia Baptist congregation in 1972. In 1974, the church ordained Hazel Grady, a 20-year staff member of Oakhurst Baptist who directed the church’s educational ministry, as a minister and added her to the pastoral staff.

In 1981, the church conducted a rare joint ordination service for a husband and wife. Nancy Hastings Sehested became pastor of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church, in Memphis, Tenn., in 1987, the only congregation led by a woman affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and was a founding member of Baptist Women in Ministry. Her husband, Ken, edited PeaceWork, an Oakhurst publication, before becoming executive director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, which formed in 1984.

In 1983, the church gave office space for Walker Knight, an Oakhurst member who took early retirement after 23 years as director of the editorial department of the SBC Home Mission Board, to launch a new independent national newspaper to cover the developing fundamentalist/moderate controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention. A church committee selected SBC Today as the name, which was later changed to, and still goes by, Baptists Today.

A few years earlier, church members Andy Loving and Gary Gunderson launched a ministry in Oakhurst’s basement to educate the church and Southern Baptists about hunger issues. That resulted in Seeds, an award-winning magazine credited with convincing the SBC to add a World Hunger Day to its denominational calendar.

Oakhurst don rutledgeOakhurst also lays claim as the first church to join the Alliance of Baptists, a resistance group formed out of the SBC schism in 1987.

During the 1980s several members of Oakhurst Baptist Church were gay, many coming from other Southern Baptist churches where they no longer were welcome. Pastor Mel Williams was approached about officiating at a same-sex commitment service, but church deacons requested that he decline.

When current pastor Lanny Peters came on board in 1989, a church member asked about his opinion on gay marriage. Peters replied that he would treat the marriage the same as he would treat the marriage of a heterosexual couple.

After a beloved church member shared during a worship service that he was HIV-positive, the congregation formally changed its membership policy to include acceptance of people of all sexual orientations and mental and physical disabilities. Oakhurst ordained Chris Copeland, an openly gay man, and hired him as associate pastor.

As a result of its stance on homosexuality, the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to “withdraw fellowship” by a vote of 2,086-262 on Nov. 16, 1999, ending the church’s long relationship with the Southern Baptists.

Today the church identifies with the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches of the South, American Baptist Churches USA, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Baptist World Alliance, Decatur Cooperative Ministry and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

In recent decades the church reports strides in learning how to be inclusive of those with mental disabilities, physical disabilities and addictions.

The 100th anniversary celebration begins at 9 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 21 with a neighborhood service project opened by a time for storytelling and memory sharing in the afternoon. A dinner in the fellowship hall precedes an evening of performing arts in the church sanctuary beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Sunday’s centennial worship service at 11 a.m. includes recognition of, and participation by, former staff members. Afterward a reception follows at 12:30 p.m. in the fellowship hall.

Throughout the weekend art and church-history items will be on display in the fellowship hall.