"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" – Psalms 133:1
The scene: Progressive National Baptist Convention attendees settle into seats at Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis in anticipation of the opening worship service for the 51st annual gathering.
On tap for the keynote sermon? Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). He did not disappoint.
The scene evoked thoughts of unity and brotherhood – past and present. A few of the civil rights veterans in the crowd recalled the evening of April 3, 1968 and the feelings of unity and brotherhood that pervaded Mason Temple – COGIC's central headquarters – as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "Mountaintop" speech.
For King, a founding member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), it would be the last speech he would deliver before his assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel the next evening.
Hours before Blake's sermon on Monday (April 6) evening, the PNBC had spearheaded a march from historic Clayborn Temple – a place well-known to King – to the National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the old Lorraine Motel. The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, the iconic Progressive National Baptist preacher, addressed marchers from the balcony, just a few feet from where he rushed to the fallen Dr. King on April 4, 1968.
From PBS documentaries to venues throughout the nation, Kyles has relived the events of that last evening with his friend, "Martin." Progressives listened intently as he recounted in vivid detail what that experience was like.
Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., remarked, "In the words of the late Dr. King, 'Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."
It was that same spirit of unity and focus on "The Beloved Community" that settled upon Monday's opening worship service. Themes of unity, brotherhood and Christian outreach were touted throughout Bishop Blake's address.
"These are exciting times for Christians everywhere," said Blake. "More than ever before, we have been presented with extraordinary opportunities for building God's kingdom and spreading the Gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We are all brothers and sisters in this great commission. We are united in our message. We are united in purpose, united in love. We are one people."
Dr. Reginald Porter, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church and chairman of the convention's Host Committee, acknowledged the significance of Bishop Blake's participation in the opening service, but said it was not uncommon for faith leaders from other denominations to address the annual conventions.
"Certainly, a great spirit of brotherhood was fostered in our opening service with Bishop Blake," said Dr. Porter. "This was all the work of our president, Dr. Baltimore. Since we were hosting the convention here, it seemed fitting to have Bishop Blake join us. Memphis was the founding place of the Church of God in Christ, and so much of its history took place right here."
In addition to annual elections and business meetings of committees and appointees, the five-day convention was packed with preachers from throughout the city and around the country. Themes of missions, community outreach and evangelism were replete in daily workshops, seminars and worship services.
St. Jude Children's Hospital was also presented with a $10,000 gift – partial payment on a $25,000 pledge made by the Progressive Baptist National Convention.