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An Accidental Southern Baptist

I often say I am an “accidental” Southern Baptist. I have spent the majority of my Christian life in the predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention. My transition to the Southern Baptist church occurred while in seminary, when I unknowingly united with a historic African-American congregation in suburban St. Louis that was a part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

All I knew about the SBC was it was born out of the desire to allow slave-holding missionaries to serve. This disparaging piece of historical information, coupled with great pride in my African-American heritage, prevented me from ever seriously considering the Southern Baptist Church.

There I was, however, seated in a new member’s class learning I had just become Southern Baptist.

Tensions Within and Without

I immediately began to wrestle myself regarding my new denominational home. I wondered, “What place do African-Americans have in a denomination born out of slavery?” “Would my contributions as an African-American pastor in the SBC be valued or be pushed aside?” “How would I be viewed by African-American Baptists outside of the SBC?” I eventually went on to become ordained in the church, but questions remained about my place in the denomination.

This internal wrestling was further complicated by the enflamed racial tensions and turmoil brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, just 15 minutes from my home. I was appalled by the lack of compassion I witnessed from many white evangelicals for the African-American community. I questioned, “Why should I want to reconcile with people who refuse to acknowledge the pain and frustration of my community is real and legitimate?”

ERLC Summit

I carried all of these questions and tensions with me to the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit conference on “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” in Nashville. I did not know what to expect walking in. Would it be a setting where the SBC could parade a few token brown faces on stage to prove it no longer struggled with its racist past? Would it be an opportunity to show just how great things could be for minorities in the SBC, if we all assimilated into the majority culture?

I sat spellbound, however, when a native son of Mississippi, Dr. Russell Moore, President of the ERLC, stood and boldly declared, “We do not need rebranding. We need repentance.” I moved to the edge of my seat. I listened as Dr. Moore and others spoke candidly about the disproportionate number of African-American males who are killed at the hands of police and who are targeted by our criminal justice system.

I had grown accustomed to hearing minority brothers and sisters speak to the issues of racial profiling, white privilege, and racism in the church. Seldom had I heard my white evangelical brethren speak with such candor regarding the unique challenges minorities face. I wanted to hear more.

I learned from Frank Page, President of the SBC Executive Committee, that the SBC is the most racially diverse denomination in North America, with nearly 25% of Southern Baptist congregations being non-white. These stats were not presented in a triumphalist manner, but were accompanied by a fervent appeal for the SBC to continue moving forward.

Speakers and panelists argued it was not enough to have elected the first African-American President of the SBC, Pastor Fred Luter, to two consecutive terms, but the denominational agencies must reflect the growing diversity within the churches.

Hopeful

I walked into the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit with questions and tensions. I walked away hopeful for many reasons: because I encountered SBC leaders who were willing to confront and renounce its sinful past; because I saw, not only was my contributions as an African-American pastor welcomed, but they were encouraged; because what I witnessed was not mere tokenism or paternalism, but brothers and sisters who were hungry for the SBC to look like heaven.

Most of all, I walked away hopeful because I witnessed a Convention that loved the Gospel — enough to own up to its institutional failures and to seek a way forward that united all ethnicities under the banner of the cross. It loved the gospel enough to confront the barriers our racial divisions had created, for the spread of the gospel and the beginning of tearing those walls down.

I was reminded, while there remains much work to be done in the SBC towards racial reconciliation, we are already reconciled in Christ. We are already one. It is finished. We are now working to live out who we truly are as God’s people: One united body in Christ. 

Accident or Providence 

At the end of the summit, I realized it was not by accident I had become Southern Baptist: It was God’s providence. The Lord used the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit to confirm he had providentially led me to the Southern Baptist Convention to serve in his Kingdom, for his glory, and to begin to live out the Gospel of reconciliation.

In what ways do you see glimmers of hope within the body of Christ as we move closer toward ethnic and racial unity?


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