Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Alaska, the First Black Southern Baptist Church, Casts Vision for Future

Nathalie Bunton, wife of Greater Friendship Baptist Church pastor Michael Bunton, leads the congregation in worship. Church Facebook photo

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP) — It’s significant that the National Register of Historic Places now honors Greater Friendship Baptist Church as the first church founded by blacks on Alaskan soil, its pastor Michael Bunton told Baptist Press Friday (Feb. 7).

But Bunton has a broader vision for the church distinguished as the first black Southern Baptist congregation when it was founded in 1951.

“When I got here five years ago, I made it plain and clear that we don’t want to be known as the first African American church in Southern Baptists,” Bunton told BP. “We want to be the most successful multicultural church in Alaska, that’s our goal.”

Yet, the church saw fit to petition the federal government to be listed on the national register, an honor bestowed June 21, 2019.

“We wanted Alaska and the Southern Baptists to understand that we as African Americans are vital in the growth of Christianity in this state and in this nation. And we are a pillar in our community,” Bunton told BP. “The two or three major churches that are prominent were birthed from Greater Friendship.”

Greater Friendship birthed New Hope Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation founded in 1960; and one of Greater Friendship’s former ministers, Frank Taylor, in 2000 became the senior pastor of Solid Rock Baptist Church, another black Southern Baptist congregation in Anchorage. Today, eight majority black congregations are members of the Alaska Baptist Resource Network (ABRN), executive director Randy Covington told BP. In addition to Greater Friendship, New Hope and Solid Rock, they are River in the Desert Community Church and Gilead Ministries in Anchorage; and St. John Baptist Church, New Birth Christian Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, all in Fairbanks.

Greater Friendship has been active in Southern Baptist life.

The Southern Baptist Convention at its 1991 annual meeting in Atlanta recognized the church as the first black Southern Baptist congregation. The Kennedy Boyce Award, established by the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network to recognize black trailblazers, is named in part for Greater Friendship’s founding pastor Charles Kennedy. Leo Josey Sr., who pastored Greater Friendship from 1962-1969, was the first black elected to a statewide Southern Baptist post in 1966 when he became vice president of what was then the Alaska Baptist Convention.

The Kennedy Boyce award also recognizes Washington Boyce, the founding pastor of Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif., formed Sept. 21, 1951 as the second black Southern Baptist congregation.

Greater Friendship was organized before the U.S. officially desegregated schools through the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and before Alaska became a state in 1959. David Reamer, a historian who has documented Greater Friendship’s history and compiled the application that garnered the national historical register designation, said blacks have enjoyed greater opportunity in Alaska than in southern states hampered by Jim Crow, lynching and other ills.

But Bunton said the state still suffers racism, pointing to discrimination that he says stems in part from the small size of the black population that has left it difficult to gain a foothold in political decision making. The indigenous population, which according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights includes 228 federally recognized tribes, also experiences discrimination, Bunton said.

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Source: Baptist Press