Robert Hunter came home from work with a pink slip—his job at General Motors was over. He had been working the night shift while attending classes at Baptist Seminary of the Bible on Kinsman Avenue in Cleveland. When he graduated in 1957, he did not know that he would soon be laid off work.
“What a strange feeling you have when you are driving home after suddenly being laid off. Now you have no way of supporting your family. When I got home and walked into the house, I showed Betty the pink slip,” Hunter said later.
Taking the slip from his hand, Betty looked at her husband and said, “God will see us through.”
Soon Walter Banks, president of Baptist Seminary of the Bible, would call the Hunters with a possible ministry opportunity. Riverside Baptist Church in Decatur, Ill., was interested in planting a church in a black neighborhood and wanted someone from the seminary to lead the work.
Arriving in Decatur, Ill., at the train station, I was picked up by Mr. and Mrs. E. J. Spitzer. While we sat around their dinner table, I learned some history of the Baptist Bible Center. Mrs. Spitzer had been holding Child Evangelism classes in various homes in Decatur since the early 1950s. One day she met some black children and invited them to attend. Most of the children attended church but knew nothing about accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior. Mrs. Spitzer was alarmed by this and told the problem to her pastor, Rev. George Bates, pastor of Riverside Baptist Church. He suggested that she talk to the children’s parents. When she did, she found out that most of them did not know what she was talking about. They thought their children were Christians because they had joined a church. When Mrs. Spitzer reported back to Rev. Bates, he said, “We have a mission field right here in Decatur, and we didn’t even know it.”
Reverend Bates called a meeting of the deacons. They purposed that a center be set up to reach the people of that predominantly black area with the fundamental truths of the Bible. The church approved the plans and consulted with Walter L. Banks, who visited Decatur in August 1957 and conducted a Bible conference at 1081 South Jackson Street, which would become the site of Baptist Bible Center. Riverside Baptist named Mr. and Mrs. Spitzer, along with Mrs. Dewey O’Dell, as the directors until a permanent director could be chosen. I was being considered for the position.
The day after my arrival, I met with Rev. Bates; then arrangements were made for me to meet with the deacon board of Riverside Baptist Church. The meeting proved to be very fruitful. We made friendships with each other that lasted throughout the years. The deacons stated that the church was ready to make me an offer should I be ready to accept the job of supervising the work at Baptist Bible Center. Their offer was that they would support me as a missionary, at the rate of three hundred dollars a month for a period of three months. During those three months I could try to raise support from other churches.
I launched into conducting revival meetings. We had services every night except Saturday, but twice on the two Sundays. Services were well attended, and a number of people came forward to give their lives to Christ. During the days I counseled a number of people who wanted to talk to me. Most of those had honest questions and were looking for honest answers.
Two men, whom I did not know, set up an appointment with me for lunch in a restaurant. They told me I had come to Decatur at a good time. Their church had just moved from its former location to a downtown area. Almost half the congregation was dissatisfied with the change and did not want to make the move. They also explained that the church’s old building was standing vacant and that they could easily gain possession of the building. They went on to say that they could pull nearly half of the congregation back to that building and would make me the pastor if I would appoint one of them a deacon and the other the Sunday School superintendent.
My first answer was that before anyone should be made a deacon or the Sunday School superintendent, he should be Scripturally qualified for the job. I informed them that the pastor does not appoint the deacons or the Sunday School superintendent; the members of the congregation select them. My second answer was that while I had come to Decatur to start a fundamental Baptist church, I did not plan on splitting one church to get another church started. Nor did I plan on playing politics within the church to gain favors for me or anybody else. That made the two men angry, and for the rest of the time I lived in Decatur, they barely spoke to me.
By the time I finished the revival meetings, I had decided I would superintend the work of Baptist Bible Center. I reported my answer to Riverside Baptist Church. They were pleased with my decision and praised God for answering their prayers.
Riverside Baptist Church was in fellowship with the GARBC, a group of churches with whom I believed the Lord would have me fellowship. The group consists of churches with a predominance of white congregations. Though I did not know it at the time, by accepting the offer to visit the church in Decatur, I would not only be keeping the promise I made to God some months prior, but I would also start and pastor Baptist Bible Church.
I had a lot to do. I needed to sell my home in Cleveland and secure a new place for my family in Decatur. I needed to report to the unemployment office in Cleveland, find a mission board that would accept me as a missionary, and find someone to speak in the services during the transitional period. That problem was answered when Riverside Baptist agreed to furnish speakers.
When I returned to Cleveland, I contacted every Baptist fundamental mission board I could find, but everyone said that they were not accepting applications from black men to go to the mission field. I was very disappointed, because I did not believe a man should try to start a church on his own. He should be under an organized church or under a mission board approved by fundamental, organized churches. In Acts 13 we have the example of Paul and Barnabas, who felt directed by the Holy Spirit to go to the mission field. The church at Antioch felt directed by the Holy Spirit to send them (vv. 1–4). There should always be harmony between the missionaries going to a mission field, the Holy Spirit, and the home church that is sending them out.
I did have the approval of my home church and the board of Baptist Seminary of the Bible, saying that I was qualified to go out as a missionary, but neither one was equipped to give me direction in the work. I was told that one man on the board of Baptist Seminary of the Bible voted against my going out as a missionary. He felt that a man and wife with six children would be too costly to support on the field.
Betty and I decided that she and the children would stay in Cleveland until school was out for the summer and until the property sold. I would go back to Decatur and start looking for a home for our family while continuing with the ministry of my predecessors at Baptist Bible Center.
Soon Betty called from Cleveland to say we had a buyer for our property, so I began seriously looking for a home in Decatur to buy for my family. Shortly after I found a possible house, my wife told me that General Motors in Cleveland had called, asking me to return to work as an inspector. I told Betty to tell them that I was not going to return to work as an inspector but that I was going to Decatur, Ill., to serve as a missionary.
This led me to ask a couple of questions: What if I had not been laid off? If I had been made a foreman in the plant, would I have consented to go to Decatur as a missionary? I would like to think my answer would have been yes to both questions. God knows me better than I know myself and worked it out accordingly.
We closed the deal on the sale of our Cleveland house, paid all our bills, and had enough money to make the down payment on the house in Decatur. With a full U-Haul trailer hitched behind the car, we loaded the family into our car. Only a few months after my initial trip to Illinois, I was moving my family to Decatur. It was September 1958.
After the first three months, the deacons at Riverside Baptist called me to give a report of my activities. When I started telling about the youth meetings, the Bible classes, and the preaching services, they said, “That is not what we want to know.” They asked about my deputation and how much support I had. I then asked them a question: “Where am I going to go to seek support? The men I am acquainted with are liberal or traditional. I tell them they are wrong. Shall I also ask them to support me?” The deacons were surprised and said they were unaware of the extent of the problem. They gave me the names and addresses of all the pastors in the Illinois Fellowship of Regular Baptist Churches and suggested I write to them.
I wrote but got no answers.
Riverside’s deacons decided to write again on my behalf. Most of the pastors responded by saying their churches had a clause in their constitutions prohibiting support of any missionary who was not under a GARBC-approved mission board. I applauded churches that had such a clause. But it didn’t help me, because I could not be a missionary under their approved boards—not because of any Scriptural reason, but because of my skin color.
Two Illinois churches, along with Riverside Baptist Church, did support me. And as I became known to other fundamental Baptist churches in the area, some took on my support. At one time a Conservative Baptist church, a Baptist church affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, three independent Baptist churches, and a Church of God church, along with three GARBC churches, supported me.
One day Pastor Bates asked if I would like to go to the IFRBC fall conference. At a prayer meeting, the host pastor told his congregation a black man would be attending the conference. When he said that, one woman shouted, “Over my dead body!”
The pastor did not think too much about her response until at a board meeting two families stated that if any black people showed their faces at the state meeting, they would embarrass them. The host pastor called Rev. Bates and told him he thought it would be best if I didn’t attend. Two days after the meeting, the host pastor came to my house. I was mowing the lawn. I shut off the lawn mower and went over to his car. As I sat in his car, he broke down and cried—I mean tears ran down his cheeks. He apologized eight or nine times. All I could say was, “That’s all right. I know it wasn’t your fault.” As we sat there, he asked about the Baptist Center. We shared stories with each other and had a rich time of fellowship.
About a year later, Betty received a call from the president of that church’s Ladies’ Missionary Society, wanting to know if she would speak to the ladies. Betty said, “I would not go to that city; neither would I speak in that church.” I told Betty I would go if the women agreed that I take her place. Sixty or seventy ladies were present. We had a potluck dinner, then I spoke. Afterward, they gave presents to my wife, all our children, and me. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I looked for trouble, but in all my looking I didn’t find any. I enjoyed the fellowship, and I believe the ladies did too.
Just before the next IFRBC conference, I got a call from the same church telling me that they would be driving two vans to the meeting. They asked if I would like to ride with them. My answer was in the affirmative. That was the same church where two families had said, “If any black people show their faces in this church, we will embarrass them.” Now we were riding together in the same van, eating in the same restaurants, sleeping in the same motel, and having fellowship together at the meeting. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
The advisory committee of Baptist Bible Center met on Jan. 13, 1959, and began to formulate a constitution, bylaws, and doctrinal statement so that we might be recognized as a fundamental, New Testament Baptist church. The main instrument we used was the Scriptures, but we took time to examine the constitutions of fundamental Baptist churches from all over the country. Completion and final approval took about two weeks. On Jan. 26, 1959, after we had finished the document, we invited pastors and deacons from GARBC churches throughout Illinois to examine our constitution, bylaws, and doctrinal statement.
Dr. Robert Ketcham, GARBC national representative at the time, was selected as chairman of the recognition council. After extensive examination and intensive questioning, we were recognized as a fundamental Bible-believing church. Upon the council’s recommendation, instead of being Baptist Bible Center, we became Baptist Bible Church. As part of the council’s report, Dr. Ketcham made this remark: “Baptist Bible Church has the most complete constitution and bylaws than any young church I have ever seen.” The church history indicates that 34 people were named as charter members.
Sometime after our recognition service, Baptist Bible Church voted unanimously to seek fellowship with the IFRBC. We mailed a letter and application but got no reply for about a year. Finally the state secretary wrote and asked that I withdraw the application, or somebody would get hurt. He said there were men in the fellowship who would fight “tooth and toenail” to see Baptist Bible Church received into the fellowship. But there were also men who would fight tooth and toenail to see that our church was not received into the fellowship.
I replied that I had no right to withdraw the application, since it was Baptist Bible Church that had applied, not me personally. I went on to say that in spite of the great injustice they were perpetrating, I believed their fellowship was one of the better ones across the country, that I didn’t want anybody to get hurt, and that I would ask the church to withdraw the application. We temporarily withdrew the application. However, that didn’t stop me from attending the state meetings. I don’t think I missed any state fellowship meetings except the first year I was in Decatur.
Baptist Bible Church did not try again to apply for membership in the Illinois state fellowship until we were asked to seek membership in mid 1980s. At that time the church was accepted into the Illinois fellowship. That same year I was given a public apology on the floor of the state meeting. I received a plaque acknowledging the apology and saying, “Here is a man who loved us when we didn’t love him.” I also received a standing ovation. It was God Who had led me to believe that these were the men He wanted me to work with.
Robert Hunter was a cofounder of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship Association and was its first national representative. After many years serving as a GARBC pastor and church-planting missionary, he lives in a care facility near Cleveland, Ohio. His autobiography, Don’t Ever Give Up, will be released by Regular Baptist Press in June.