When the late Victor Glass led the Home Mission Board’s outreach to black Baptists, he would conduct an exercise in phonetics with fellow white Southern Baptists at the board’s frequent racial reconciliation conferences.
“He would have everybody bend into a bending position, with their hands on their knees, and say ‘Negro-o-o’” is how Emmanuel McCall, the first black to hold a professional leadership position within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), remembers it. McCall began working with Glass as associate director of the board’s Department of Cooperative Ministries with National Baptists.
“That was his way of trying to break [the mispronunciation of ‘Negro’], and it was simply a cultural thing, but the word always came out … the ‘N’ word. And they never could get ‘Negro,’” McCall said. Sometimes, the result would be “negra,” McCall said.
The linguistic difficulty is noted in an official Home Mission Board ministry brochure archived in the Emmanuel Lemuel McCall Papers at the SBC Historical Library and Archives in Nashville. The mispronunciation, the brochure notes, is one reason the title “Department of Negro Work” was dropped in 1959, “as most blacks were offended at hearing” the phonetic mis-rendering.
Decades later, as Southern Baptists mark the 56th annual Racial Reconciliation Sunday Feb. 14, McCall, now retired, notes “great progress” has been made in establishing relationships between blacks and whites and among the various ethnicities active in Southern Baptist life.
BP file photo
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church pastor Fred Luter Jr. points to heaven at his 2012 election as president of the SBC, the first African American to hold the post. At right is outgoing president Bryant Wright.
No longer is relationship building only done predominantly with blacks who are not Southern Baptists, but a growing diversity within the SBC has fostered cross-racial relationship within the convention itself.
About a fifth of the 50,000-plus Southern Baptist congregations identify themselves as majority non-Anglo, up from 5 percent in 1990, according to North American Mission Board numbers. Included are about 3,500 African American, 1,700 Hispanic, 700 Korean, 400 Native American, 200 Haitian, 200 Chinese and 100 Filipino churches and church-type missions, among others.
“The fact that there is great diversity, both within the SBC and the other churches in the South, is a testimony to what happened across those years,” McCall said. “It moved from cooperative ministries to the point where there were enough black churches in the SBC that our attention could be given to really doing interracial cooperation with the churches that were in the convention.”
Amid intensifying national racial turmoil, marked by rioting and public protests following several police killings of unarmed black men, SBC President Ronnie Floyd renewed efforts in 2015 to heal racial wounds within the SBC and nationwide.
Floyd considers 2015 a year of historic progress in racial healing.
“The progress is growing quickly,” he said. “We have seen trust continue to occur and a genuine commitment to represent the Lord together. As president, I have made more appointments of non-white persons to committees in our history. Our National Prayer Gathering at the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention highlighted for a lengthy section racial unity, not only in declaration, but [in] deep prayer together.
“Julio Arriola, who directed all worship at last year’s [annual meeting], is the first elected Mexican-American worship director in Southern Baptist history,” said Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. “My work as SBC president with the president of the National Baptist Convention [Jerry Young] is unprecedented. We continue forward in this great gospel call to each of us.”
Floyd and Young, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. (NBCUSA), are collaborating in what Floyd calls providential experiences. The two men assembled together 10 pastors from each convention for a discussion on race relations at the 2015 Mission Mississippi Racial Reconciliation Summit in Jackson. They have continued to encourage dialogue among pastors and have promoted and modeled racial reconciliation in columns and interviews in national media. The two are encouraging Southern Baptist pastors to swap pulpits on occasion with National Baptists.
In a January 2016 New York Times article, Young revealed the struggle he has encountered within the NBCUSA in uniting with Floyd to promote racial reconciliation.
“I’ve never said this to Dr. Floyd, but I’ve had fellows in my own denomination who called me and said: ‘What are you doing? I mean, are you not aware of the history?’” Young said in The Times. “And I say, obviously I’m aware. They bring up the issue about slavery and that becomes a reason, they say, that we ought not to be involved with the Southern Baptists. Where from my vantage point, that’s reverse racism.
“I do understand the history, and I understand the pain of the past,” said Young, who pastors New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson. “But what I’m also quite clear about is, if the gospel does anything at all, the gospel demands that we not only preach but practice reconciliation.”
The 2012 and 2013 elections of Fred Luter Jr. as SBC president, the first African American to hold the position, is widely hailed among Southern Baptists as both evidence of and a catalyst for reconciliation.
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At a 2015 racial reconciliation event hosted by the SBC National African American Fellowship, SBC executive David Waltz, left, hugged NBCUSA pastor emeritus Gus Roman. NAAF President K. Marshall Williams stands behind them.
“I believe it made a statement to America evangelicalism, that Southern Baptists are committed to all peoples in leadership and ministry,” Floyd said.
Luter, longtime pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, sees his election as intentional.
“For years this convention was only ‘talking’ racial reconciliation, however my election in a predominantly Anglo convention was intentional and we have seen the results across the country,” Luter told BP. “I believe my election as SBC president truly tore down a lot of walls across our convention not only for African Americans but for all ethnic groups. I have not only seen it personally but also read about in associations and conventions across the country. For that I am grateful and thankful to God!”
K. Marshall Williams, president of the National African American Fellowship (NAAF), praises Luter as an ambassador of change.
“Dr. Fred Luter’s example of personal holiness and prayerful passion for the home and the house of God during his tenure as the first African American SBC president has had a tremendous impact on authentic Kingdom living in our convention,” Williams said. “I believe we are growing in grace as a convention when it comes to racial reconciliation.”
Williams, pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, notes several indicators of growth, including the appointments of African Americans to senior management positions. They include Ken Weathersby, vice president for convention advancement with the SBC Executive Committee, and Steven Harris, director of advocacy in the Washington office of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Diversity is the greatest it has ever been on SBC committees, with ethnic and minority members comprising 27 percent of the 2016 Committee on Nominations, according to official numbers.
The longstanding annual Black Church Leadership and Family Conference, ERLC’s “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” conference and the many ethnic advisory councils instituted under the leadership of Executive Committee President Frank S. Page are all valuable to building relationships and unity, Williams said.
“With … the continued implementation of African American and ethnic advisory councils’ recommendations with SBC entities, we will continue to see more growth,” Williams said.
Page has been intentional in gaining input and recommendations from the various Southern Baptist ethnic communities.
“Our advisory councils have given us the opportunity to build on existing relationships while creating new relationships with key leaders across our Southern Baptist family,” Page said. “As we get to know the unique perspectives, needs and Kingdom desires of our various brothers and sisters in Christ, we move toward building trust and spiritual community.”
The African American Advisory Council, the Asian Advisory Council, the Hispanic Advisory Council and the Multi-Ethnic Advisory Council have all been initiatives of Page, who commissioned the groups to submit reports to him.
“We have worked together to identify barriers to participation and gaps in full participation of all members of our intercultural Southern Baptist family,” Page said. “The most exciting thing I see is how vastly the conversation about intercultural engagement has changed in such a short time. This gives me great hope about the future.”
Among Southern Baptist state conventions and associations, 24 have elected non-Anglo presidents, many of them for the first time in 2014 or 2015, specifically Kevin Smith in Kentucky, Michael Ellis in Tennessee and Greg Fields in Nevada. Non-Anglos are serving in other officer positions in Alaska, Arkansas and Mississippi.
NAAF has been influential in opening doors for African Americans in particular to serve in leadership posts at state levels, said NAAF historian Robert Wilson, a longtime denominational worker and retired Southern Baptist pastor. In January, he accepted the part-time post of director of the Georgia/Alabama Certificate Center for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Since the beginning of NAAF, the role has been to provide a voice for those persons of African descent in the various [entities] of the SBC, starting with the local associations and flowing up through the state conventions and culminating with the SBC,” Wilson said. “The results have been seen in the election of African American moderators in the local associations, the election of state convention presidents, which helped to lead to the election of an African American as the president of the SBC itself.
“Had there not been pastors within NAAF promoting, planning and pushing for this type of representation at all levels,” he said, “I dare say that much less would have been done. An old African proverb has been quoted by many as saying, ‘If the goat belongs to no one it sleeps outside.’”
As NAAF president, Williams has focused on holiness, racial reconciliation and prayer, which were emphasized at the 2015 NAAF Kingdom Symposium Williams hosted at Nazarene Baptist Church.
“The National African American Fellowship has sought to be a prophetic voice, with a passion and pursuit for personal holiness and Kingdom living, that is important to the life, growth and spiritual health of the SBC and the church universal,” Williams said. The group has been intentionally involved in several diversity initiatives in the SBC as well as the national prayer network PrayerLink.
Floyd, Luter and Williams will mark Racial Reconciliation Sunday with the same fervor for racial reconciliation the men practice year-round.
“Weekly, we celebrate in worship having persons of different ethnicities on our stage helping in worship, or helping us forward the message of Christ and the church through our video we produce for our worship services,” Floyd said. “On this Sunday, we will pray for this to occur in our own region and in America.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor. Sunday, Feb. 14, was Racial Reconciliation Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention.)