Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, the largest black church in Birmingham, dually aligns with the Southern and National Baptist Conventions.
It has done so since then pastor John Porter reached out to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1989.
“It broadens our fellowship with all the Baptists, in Birmingham and throughout the country,” current pastor John Cantelow III told SBC LIFE. “So many people fought to be inclusive; so many blacks and whites worked for that.
“It was a big thing at the time when we joined with Southern Baptists,” the pastor continued. “I’m pretty much continuing with it because I believe it broadens our fellowship to be joined with both conventions. We participate in the spirit of unity” that should be exhibited by Baptist churches, he said.
Sixth Avenue Baptist is noteworthy in the Civil Rights Movement because in 1963, the pastor—John Porter—invited Martin Luther King Jr. to bring his non-violent protest of racial inequality to Birmingham.
“Dr. Porter was Dr. King’s assistant at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” Cantelow said. “The entire South was racially divided, but the North was as well. . . . The Children’s March happened because the children really wanted to be involved in the movement.”
Horrifying televised images of children as young as six being sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses, and attacked by snarling, biting dogs, began a national reversal of signs of inequality.
“It meant a lot to gain some form of equal rights,” the pastor said. “I was born after the Civil Rights Movement and I was fortunate to grow up in a strong black neighborhood, so I did not feel the brunt of racism as my parents and grandparents did.”
The differences between the Southern and National Baptist conventions come down mainly to people, Cantelow said.
He knows more people in the National Baptist Convention because they share a common culture, vocation, and similar social and political views about justice and equality.
Southern Baptists produce very good conferences, church curricula, and good opportunities to be a part of various ministries, Cantelow said. They also seek to reach beyond their denomination in a spirit of inclusion and unity in the name of Jesus.
“Sixth Avenue Baptist Church is a family of faith known for its historic and contemporary influence in the greater Birmingham area,” Rick Lance told SBC LIFE. Lance is executive director of the Alabama Baptist Convention. “One of their key staff members, Dr. Rosevelt Morris Sr., recently served with distinction as the moderator of the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association.
“The church has strong outreach into the community, and many of its members are intricately involved in numerous areas of service in the city and beyond,” Lance said.
“Sixth Avenue Baptist Church has been a cooperating Southern Baptist church for many years,” Ken Weathersby told SBC LIFE. Weathersby is the SBC’s Executive Committee’s vice president for Convention advancement.
“The church has been instrumental in race relations during the time it was not popular,” Weathersby continued. “The late Dr. John Porter was instrumental in bringing Southern Baptists and National Baptists together to explore ways to partner together, and the church was involved in city-wide revivals and outreach to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“That continues today under the leadership of Dr. John Cantelow III,” Weathersby said. “I am excited for the leadership of Sixth Avenue’s involvement in our 2019 SBC annual meeting.”
Sixth Avenue Baptist sees about 3,400 people throughout the month in Sunday morning worship, with about 1,000 on any given Sunday. Its wide range of church programming from infants to “Keenagers” (retirees) is to help members become active disciples, being Jesus’s hands and feet in the community, the pastor said.
“As pastor, my objective is to have a Spirit-filled church and an ever-increasing manifestation of the gifts and fruit of the Spirit,” Cantelow said. “I would like to see people experience liberation from whatever has them in bondage as Christians.”
Sixth Avenue Baptist, which supports missions through the Cooperative Program, Birmingham Metro Baptist Association, and the National Baptist Convention, also tackles problems that stem from Satan’s activity in Birmingham, Haiti, and Liberia.
The church has a food pantry, ministers in a variety of ways to the homeless, assists people with utility payments, and provides support for Children’s Village, a refuge for abandoned, abused, and neglected children, as well as several other Birmingham-area ministries.
“We want to equip Christians to serve and reach the world for Christ,” Cantelow said. “We are a people striving to be who God wants us to be. We definitely want to be a light in our community as well as to the state and world.”
Outside of Birmingham, teens have ministered in New Orleans, Louisiana; Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida; Myrtle Beach, North Carolina; and elsewhere across the Southeast. A group of church members go to Vredenburgh, Alabama, a town of about three hundred people southwest of Birmingham, twice a year for ministry and free medical clinics, and last year the church built an activity center for the town.
Teens and adults for the last two years have ministered through an orphanage the church adopted in Haiti. Sixth Avenue Baptist also has ministered in Liberia for many years. Most recently they helped to build a school there.
“We want Sixth Avenue Baptist Church to be a place where people experience salvation, healing, good fellowship, and discipleship,” Cantelow said. “A place where you get a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about. That’s what I want to see at Sixth Avenue.”
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for SBC LIFE and Baptist Press and is a member of First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Utah.