The 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida caused the pastor to fear for the life of his own son, who has autism and wears hoodies to block out noise.
Sands’ testimony during the 2018 South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) annual meeting, held in Charleston, made fellow Christians consider a perspective that, for many of them, had long been far-removed.
“Those are the conversations I pray we’ll have,” said Sands, who was recently elected president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. “When you talk about race, you have to be spiritually mature.”
Sands, 49, was voted unanimously in November to his new position and will be the state convention’s first African American president in the denomination’s 200-year history. He’ll assume the role in 2021.
The SCBC, part of the larger Southern Baptist Convention, has a definitively racist past, and Sands’ election comes at a time when the denomination is aiming to atone for its sins of the past and be more inclusive.
The history dates back to the 19th century when the First Baptist Church of Charleston, the oldest Baptist church in the South, once forced slaves to sit in the balcony as white preachers advocated for their enslavement.
This wasn’t unique to First Baptist, or the Baptist denomination, as other predominately white congregations also promoted segregation in houses of worship.
Today, the S.C. Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the state, is mostly white. One percent of the convention’s 2,000 S.C. churches have African American pastors.
The denomination has made a commitment to become more inclusive as it reconciles with its history.
In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the national Southern Baptist Convention’s founding, the nationwide organization issued a resolution acknowledging the role slavery played in formation of the church.
Last year, the SCBC passed a resolution at its state meeting where the church said it intentionally seeks racial diversity in all positions of leadership in churches, committees, associations and the convention.
In the vein of that same 2018 resolution, the state meeting operated under the theme “Building Bridges,” where pastors spoke about how the Gospel promotes diversity.
In more tangible ways, the state convention has a seven-member racial reconciliation task force, which includes four black pastors, that has been examining putting policies in place that will focus scholarship funds to minority students attending Baptist seminaries, and create more diversity among the convention’s staff.
The Rev. Josh Powell, president of the SCBC, noted that the denomination’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries, which operate on college campuses throughout the state, are the church’s most diverse ministries. The church has to do more to invest in students who may want to serve in leadership positions, Powell said.
The task force has also been looking into planting churches in minority communities.
Powell said Sands’ election represents a new age in the Baptist church.
“It’s a big moment for us because there’s been a lot of conversation, a lot of words that have been said, but now we can see some action,” he said.
Local churches have been working toward reconciliation, as well.
First Baptist Church, which rests near the predominately black Robert Mills Manor apartments in downtown Charleston, recently operated its Christmas Store, which sold gifts at discounted prices.
FBC also helped start a church, Southside Impact, in the same community, and members from the Baptist church have held Bible studies at Southside Impact for children.
The church held a ceremony last year when it unveiled a black-and-gold plaque that was placed outside the door where thousands of slaves entered.
Preparing for the future
Sands said he is humbled by the selection and sees this moment as his chance to open the doors for others and change the narrative surrounding Southern Baptists.
“I see this as an opportunity to set the table for the future,” he said.
Religious leaders were clear that Sands isn’t just the convention’s first black president. He’s a qualified candidate who’s been prepared through educational experience and prior leadership positions on the state level.
The Rev. Marshall Blalock, who pastors First Baptist in Charleston, has known Sands for nearly a decade. He touted the incoming president as a wise and intelligent leader who follows Christ.
Blalock nominated Sands for the role at the recent statewide gathering of Baptists, but intentionally did not refer to Sands’ race during the presentation.
“I didn’t want that to be the feature of the nomination,” Blalock said. “He’s Alex. And he’s such a good man. If he were the pastor of my church, I would follow him.”
Pastor Philip Pinckney, who is African American, leads Radiant Church in North Charleston. He agreed that Sands is a qualified candidate.
“If he wasn’t black, he’d still be an exciting choice for a convention president. The fact that he is (black) isn’t meaningless. But it’s not the primary reason. You want to avoid tokenism. The election of Alex Sands definitely is not that.”
Sands doesn’t come from a religious background. But while the Maryland native didn’t attend church much growing up, he said he always had a desire to learn more about God.
After getting married and starting graduate school in Georgia to study industrial engineering, the minister said he still felt a void. That sense of emptiness led him to fully accept Jesus Christ. “I just wanted more,” Sands said.
Sands and his wife moved to Greenville in 1997 and joined a nearby nondenominational church where Sands taught Sunday school.
He started attending local seminaries, and began applying at churches in need of a pastor, but none were a fit.
That’s when one of the members of a men’s group Sands was attending convinced Sands to start his own church. In 2003, 12 men founded Kingdom Life Church, which would grow into a vibrant contemporary congregation that focuses on simplistic worship and community service.
While the church started out as nondenominational group, it connected with the Baptist church shortly after the Kingdom Life’s founding.
Seeking resources and information about establishing a church, Sands visited the SCBC’s Greenville office, where church leaders offered to support his congregation through finances and training.
Sands said his theology aligned with that of the Baptists, and he was also drawn to the denomination because of its focus on missions and education.
But navigating through a church where many leaders don’t look like him would become difficult at times, he recalled.
The African American pastor remembers having conversations with church members about President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, noting that the nation, which has a history of slavery and segregation, “wasn’t always great.”
In addition to having round-table discussions throughout the state on racial reconciliation in the coming years, Sands also hopes churches increase their emphasis on community service.
At Kingdom Life, based in Simpsonville, the church operates a food pantry and in November gave out 300 boxes of food to more than 200 families.