NASHVILLE (BP) – The Southern Baptist Convention’s progress in racial reconciliation will fall short of what is needed if it is measured by the one-time election of an African-American president, speakers said at a leadership summit.
A panel of Southern Baptist leaders commented on the status of race relations in the convention during a March 27 discussion at “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation,” a two-day meeting sponsored by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville.
Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, replayed briefly for attendees his 2012 election as the first black president of a convention that was started in 1845 by a breakaway group of Baptists who supported the appointment of slave owners as missionaries.
He recalled a conversation he had with Charles Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, when no other nominees had surfaced to challenge him in the race a month before the annual SBC meeting.
“Fred, I just think our convention feels that it’s time,” Luter quoted Kelley as saying.
Luter’s election by acclamation was greeted by an emotional, standing ovation. “It was one of the greatest hours in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Luter told the audience. “My only concern is that hopefully it’s not the last time.”
ERLC President Russell Moore quickly seconded Luter’s concern.
“[T]hat’s where the real test is,” Moore said. “We’ve got the pictures of the presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention [in the SBC building in Nashville]. Let’s come back in 20 years, and if Fred Luter is an island in a sea of middle-aged white guys, that means we have not been where we need to be. Just because [black artist] Charley Pride’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame, that doesn’t mean it’s diverse.
“We can’t say, ‘Because this happened, now we’ve settled this issue.’ This is an ongoing issue of leadership in our convention.”
Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, told attendees he does not want Luter “to be an anomaly.”
“He was a great, great president,” Page said of Luter. “And I want to see that day come when it’s not atypical, it’s normal to see a person of color as president.”
The candidates are available, Luter and Page both said.
“There’s a lot of qualified African-American pastors in this convention,” Luter told an audience that numbered 550 registrants, “and even those on whose shoulders I have stood before I became president of the Southern Baptist Convention who put their blood, sweat and tears into this convention, and for whatever reason God allowed it to happen to me.”
Southern Baptists “have a number of great” African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and other ethnic leaders, Page said.
Racial representation, however, has “got to be at every other level of SBC life,” he said.
That does not mean the convention should add a quota system, Page said. “We don’t want that, but we want there to be such an openness that it becomes just what happens. Great, great leaders rise to the top.
“I want to see the day when our boards and agencies and our employment at all our agencies look like our convention and look like our nation,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”
Racial reconciliation in the SBC could have a much wider impact, said K. Marshall Williams, senior pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa., and president of the National African American Fellowship (NAAF) of the SBC.
“I believe that God is calling this convention to lead this nation in revival, and if we get [reconciliation] straight, when we get this straight, we’ll see revival break out all over,” he said.
Williams expressed encouragement about the building of relationships across racial lines and the advancement of African Americans into senior management positions at SBC entities.
“We’re beginning to build relationships where we can know our brother’s heart and be able to take the next step and … speak the truth in love and talk about the tough things based on what the Scripture says and challenge one another to be in accord with the Word of God so that we might be used by God,” Williams said.
Southern Baptists already are “the most ethnically diverse denominational convention in this continent with nobody even coming close,” Page said.
One in five Southern Baptist congregations is predominantly African American or otherwise ethnic in its makeup, Page said. That includes about 3,000 black churches, more than 2,000 Hispanic churches and more than 2,000 Asian churches, Page said. Other churches are “extremely multi-ethnic,” he told the audience. More than 100 language groups are represented each Sunday in SBC churches, he said.
Luter and Williams explained to attendees how their churches came to be identified with the SBC.
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was already Southern Baptist when it became predominantly black in the early 1980s. A National Baptist by background, Luter “had no clue” about the SBC’s pro-slavery background when he became pastor of Franklin Avenue in 1986, he said.
“I loved the things that this convention was doing – their love for missions, their love for outreach, their love for people really spoke a lot to me,” Luter said. When several members wanted to withdraw from the SBC in 1988, he recalled, “I looked at this congregation that I loved and said, ‘Listen, all of us have got a history. I’ve got a history. You’ve got a history. … Folk, there’s nothing we can do about our past, but there’s a whole lot we can do about our future.’
“And in 1988 I said that, not knowing that one day I would be president of this convention.”
Williams said Nazarene Baptist Church was an independent Baptist church before becoming a SBC congregation. He was seeking a convention of churches focused on God’s Word, he told attendees.
“We joined the Southern Baptist Convention so it would be a reciprocal relationship,” Williams said. “Because Nazarene Baptist Church joined the Southern Baptist Convention, Nazarene Baptist Church would be better, better equipped to do the work of the ministry. And because Nazarene Baptist Church joined the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Convention would be better. We would bring something to the table.
‘[I]t’s been a great relationship,” he said. “And I think one of the things that has helped us is to get involved and build relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ that may not look like us, may not worship like us, because we all come from one blood, same Spirit, same Scriptures.”
Luter’s election came 17 years after SBC messengers approved a resolution repenting of the convention’s pro-slavery and racist past upon its 150th anniversary.
The ERLC initially planned for its 2015 leadership summit to be on pro-life ethics but announced in December it was changing the theme to racial reconciliation in the wake of grand jury decisions in the police killings of black men that provoked widespread protests and a nationwide discussion. The shift in plans followed decisions by grand juries in St. Louis County and New York City not to indict police in the high-profile deaths of African-American men.
Panelists in a March 26 discussion at the leadership summit assessed the state of racial reconciliation in America.
Moore and Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., identified both positive and negative signals from the national debate in recent months.
“I am greatly encouraged by the number of people who are mustering courage to have the conversation and the number of people who are – as they muster courage – confessing really hard things to confess but are demonstrating some commitment to the truth,” Anyabwile said, adding he also is encouraged by the leadership of some pastors and churches.
“[W]hat has been discouraging to me has been the discovery of what I can only characterize as continuing, lingering racism,” he said. “That’s discouraging among confessing Christian people in particular.”
Anyabwile also expressed discouragement “with the inability that some people have to disagree without being disagreeable.”
He concluded, “We don’t ultimately have any reason for despair in these conversations. We can be the most real people in this world because we know that Christ is at work in these conversations. So there is discouragement on the one hand but many signs of great hope that we should give God praise for.”
Moore said he is discouraged by some of his mail.
“That’s discouraging to see that there are still sentiments out there that are so Gospel unformed that they could have been written in a pamphlet with the White Citizens Council in 1964 Mississippi” by church members, he said. Yet, the work of God across racial differences in some churches is encouraging, he said.
With the national debate in recent months, “perhaps what the Lord is doing in several of these situations is enabling those of us who are in the church to start listening to one another,” Moore said.