By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – George Stone is a modest man, and doesn’t want to make this about either himself, or about race, but, to some extent, it’s really about both.
Before the Sunday evening service at Harrisburg Baptist Church, nobody could remember when a black man had been ordained a deacon at a predominantly white Southern Baptist congregation in Northeast Mississippi.
Stone broke that barrier, and just one week prior to the city-wide celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“I really hadn’t thought about all that, but I know that it’s important,” said the 41-year-old Tupelo beautician and personal trainer.
Of Harrisburg’s 3,600 members, about 25 are black. In the church’s 75-year history it’s never had a black deacon.
Called to serve
Stone was born and raised in Northeast Mississippi, and, until four years ago, attended a local black, Missionary Baptist church.
In 2006, he was courting his soon-to-be wife, Tiffany, who had recently joined Harrisburg after transferring membership from Bellevue Baptist in Memphis.
Tiffany never put any pressure on her beau to join her, but one Sunday, Stone decided to surprise her.
“I was just blown over by Brother Forrest’s sermon about the Lord’s Supper,” said Stone, recalling how the preacher’s words resonated within him.
Stone was convinced that he was being called to join Harrisburg, but he wanted to break the news gently to his black brethren.
“I still get some flack about it,” he said. “But, I know that I did the right thing.”
Stone joined Harrisburg in 2006 and quickly got involved in the church’s outreach ministries. His enthusiasm made quite an impression on Harrisburg’s members, including the Rev. Forrest Sheffield, senior pastor.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who’ve told me that George invited them to church,” said Sheffield.
“He has a great heart for the Lord and he’s shown himself to be a man that cares about people.”
Inspirited expressions aren’t the norm in Harrisburg’s spacious, subdued sanctuary, but Sunday night Stone seemed unaware that his up-lifted hands, reaching skyward as Robert Yarber sang “Broken and Spilled Out,” were anything out of the ordinary.
Stone sat with three other men, facing the altar, as 13 current and former deacons lined up to lay hands upon them.
One by one the men walked up behind Stone and placed their hands on his broad shoulders. They leaned in close, whispering encouragement and blessing, and Stone nodded, at times visibly fighting back tears.
Harrisburg has 48 active deacons, each of whom serve four-year terms, so 12 deacons rotate off every year.
The office is one of only two within Southern Baptist polity, the other being pastor. The Biblical basis is found in Acts 6:1, and 1 Timothy 3.
Stone and his colleagues were nominated by virtue of their excellent service and standing within the community, then confirmed by a vote from the congregation.
In his sermon, Sheffield enumerated some of the duties the men will be expected to perform during their four-year tenure, including visiting the sick, greeting new members and ministering to the bereaved.
Stone is excited, and ready to get started.
“I feel so blessed to be among these good people and I know the Lord has great things in store for all of us,” he said.
The Rev. Mark Howard, director of missions for the Lee County Baptist Association, said that where Harrisburg leads, many churches follow, and he hopes Baptists will continue to elect deacons who are minorities in their churches.
“It’s refreshing to me, and I’m encouraged,” said Howard. “It an indicator how far we’ve come since the days when racism and discrimination ruled.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.