Editor’s note: This is part 2 of the Illinois Baptist’s coverage of a recent summit hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on racial reconciliation and the gospel. Read part 1 here.
NEWS | If Southern Baptists are to be serious about Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples, said historian Matt Hall, they need to honestly think through where they’ve come from. Hall, Southern Seminary’s vice president for academic services, spoke in a video message about the SBC’s history with slavery, racism, and segregation during a March summit hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on racial reconciliation and the gospel. (The Convention was formed over a divide between Baptists in the North and those in the South who wanted to continue owning slaves.)
Hall also led one of the summit’s panel discussions, joined onstage by Moore, Philadelphia pastor K. Marshall Williams, SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page, and past SBC President Fred Luter.
Understanding the SBC’s past ought to inform how we address racial issues now, Moore said. The divide over slavery “really was a justification for evil and for wickedness,” he said.
“Which, to me, ought to cause us not so much to look back and say, ‘Weren’t they evil and weren’t they wrong?’ as much as it ought to cause us to look back and to say, ‘Look at these people who knew their Bibles, and who were preaching their Bibles, and who were trying to gather up money for world missions, and yet were not able to see this glaring and wicked sin and unrighteousness and injustice that they were part of.’
“That ought to not give us a sense of our superiority to them; it ought to give us a sense of humility to say, ‘If these people who knew their Bibles like this, could get this that wrong on an issue that is so basic to what Scripture is teaching, then we need the mercy and the power of God.’”
IBSA African American Church Planting Strategist Ed Jones has faced the obstacle of the SBC’s history, he said. Some African Americans have told him, “I don’t necessarily want to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention because of its past,” he told the Illinois Baptist during the summit. The Nashville meeting was an opportunity to tackle those issues head-on and bring things into the open.
Luter said the Convention’s history resulted in one question asked by every person who interviewed him in the months before his election: Why would a black man want to be president of the SBC? Frankly, he didn’t know much about the Convention’s history when he went from street preacher to pastoring New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church almost 30 years ago. A couple of years into his pastorate, several of his older church members suggested Franklin Avenue leave the SBC.
“…There’s nothing we can do about our past,” was Luter’s response. “But there’s a whole lot we can do about our future.”
Luter was on the SBC Resolutions Committee that in 1995 proposed a resolution adopted by Convention messengers apologizing “to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime,” and repenting “of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The applause and tears that accompanied his election as SBC president made June 19, 2012, “one of the greatest hours in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Luter said as people in the Nashville auditorium clapped too. “My only concern is that hopefully it’s not the last time.”
“That’s where the real test is,” said Moore. “We’ve got the pictures of the presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention over there. Let’s come back in 20 years and if Fred Luter is an island in a sea of middle-aged white guys, that’s means that we have not been where we need to be.”
Can we keep the ‘beast feast’?
H.B. Charles was in the middle of a potential church merger when he was asked that question about a long-held tradition. Charles’ largely African-American church, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., was considering combining with largely Anglo church across town. One member of that congregation was most concerned with whether Charles as pastor would let them keep their annual wild game dinner and evangelistic outreach, known as the “beast feast.”
“He looked at me and said, ‘Pastor, I know you’ll agree with me, that if one redneck comes to Jesus, it’s worth it all.’ And in that moment,” Charles said, “I just had a feeling everything was going to be all right.”
The summit’s lightest and most practical moments came when practitioners like Charles explained what racial reconciliation looks like in a church setting. Josh Smith, pastor of MacArthur Boulevard Baptist Church in Irving, Tex., experienced a similar would-be culture clash when a woman at his increasingly diverse church brought a tambourine to play during worship, and during his sermon.
Smith and his team decided the next day they would allow the tambourine playing during the worship, but not during the message. He explained their thoughts to the woman, who’s still at the church six years later. “It was a lot of those hard conversations,” Smith said of the church’s transition to be more diverse, “and I just felt like it was not as much from the pulpit as interpersonal conversations.”
Sometimes, unity is a matter to preach about, as Adron Robinson found when he became pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills. Robinson, who attended the ERLC summit, said his first sermon series was on forgiveness, because the church had recently experienced a difficult time in its history when he arrived almost six years ago.
Hillcrest’s community is largely African American, Robinson said, and his church currently reflects their neighborhood. But during the summit, he said he was wrestling with one of the conversations happening onstage: Is it best for churches to reflect their communities, even if those communities are predominantly one ethnicity?
“I’m good with the fact that our church reflects our community, but I’m also wondering, Is that enough? Does a church need to look more like heaven?
“There’s some ease…some accomplishment in the fact that we look like our community, but I also think that there’s more for us to do, that the church needs to be more multi-cultural, more multi-ethnic,” Robinson said. He also sees a need for more unity between churches.
“We’re cordial and we speak, but there’s not really true fellowship,” Robinson said of some African-American and Anglo Southern Baptist congregations. “So, that’s been an issue, and I think it’s an issue on both sides. [I don’t think] that I’ve done everything that I can do to encourage that either.
“This conference has helped me see the need for communication, for us to sit down, share a meal, and actually build a better relationship, so that we can be the family that God has called us to be.”