Multiple speakers at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tenn., made calls to action for racial unity in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas, specifically charged two of the denomination’s entities to make definitive progress toward ethnic diversity in coming months.
“Right now we have two major entities in the Southern Baptist Convention that have vacancies at the leadership level,” Pitman said in a breakout session on racial problems and progress in the SBC. “It is imperative that at least one of them be filled with minority leadership.”
His words were met by a wave of applause.
The International Mission Board’s David Platt announced Feb. 12 that his resignation as president was forthcoming so he could return to full-time pastoral ministry, and the SBC Executive Committee’s Frank Page exited the entity’s lead role March 27 following the disclosure of a moral failure.
Making his point more directly, Pitman turned attention to a fellow panelist on the stage, Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
“Something is seriously wrong if the brother sitting to the left of me – with his experience, dedication and understanding of Southern Baptist life – is not strongly considered to be the CEO and president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Smith is African-American and has formerly served within the SBC as pastor of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., faculty member at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
“I believe it’s an Esther-type moment – ‘for such a time as this’ – that God has raised up a statesman in our denomination that can lead us into the next generation,” Pitman said.
The breakout session was one of many at the April 3-4 event, co-hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and The Gospel Coalition to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Pitman and Smith were joined in the panel discussion by Byron Day, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Laurel, Md. and president of the SBC National African American Fellowship; and Jeff Dodge, teaching pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. ERLC Chief of Staff Daniel Patterson moderated the talk, entitled “The SBC and Race: Problems and Progress.”
Day said there is a growing desire in the SBC to see deeds match the words found in a 1995 resolution that denounced and apologized for historical Southern Baptist participation and support of racial oppression.
“One of the things I’m hearing is that it is time to stop talking and start doing,” he said. “We need to see diversity at every level.”
In an earlier part of the panel discussion, Pitman called white Southern Baptists to humbly consider the concerns of their black brothers and sisters, and then join them in pursuing racial unity.
“Sometimes white Southern Baptists say, ‘OK, we made our apology, can we not move past that?’ But that’s a gross misunderstanding of the severity of the issue,” Pitman said. “Every time there is an opportunity to drive a nail in the coffin of racism, every white Southern Baptist should be quick to grab the hammer.”
Smith recounted the checkered legacy of Baptists and other evangelicals on racism and ethnic diversity.
“Pastors have historically been silent or provided the fences for the sin of racism in whatever form it manifested, or historically have been faithful pastors and paid the cost for it,” he said.
Smith said conversations around racism must be considered as topics of missions and evangelism, not politics.
“What are the missiological costs of not pursuing Christian unity?” he asked, alluding to the faults of both major United States political parties.
“Are there any missiological costs of being in a ‘browning’ country and being on board with a candidate that demonizes Mexicans?” Smith continued.
“Younger generations are happy to be here and be alive, so are there any missiological costs of being connected to a candidate who is in the hands of Planned Parenthood?”
Smith also explained why he values racial unity in the SBC, even when it is difficult to achieve.
“I am thankful for the resources and opportunities we have. Most American denominations can’t put a $1 million mobile dental clinic in poor neighborhoods, while church planters reach out to the communities and provide love-your-neighbor type ministries.
“Even as [the International Mission Board] downsizes to get our budget right, most denominations can’t field the largest global missions force around the world. Most denominations don’t have the particular focus [of the North American Mission Board] to plant churches in the 32 largest metropolitan areas of America. Most denominations don’t have the largest seminaries in the world.”
He said the Cooperative Program enables the SBC to sustain broad support across ethnic lines.
“Ultimately we do this for kingdom purposes, to obey Jesus’ command that His people would be one, but missiologically, why do we do this?
“Being the largest Protestant denomination in America, that since 1925 has had this way of putting our resources together, it allows us to strategically approach missions and ministry in a way that other denominations just aren’t able to.”
The panel discussion also covered topics such as leaders being continual learners, avoiding short-sighted cultural trends, broadening race discussions to include Hispanic and Asian ethnicities, and equipping younger Christians and future pastors to prioritize ethnic diversity.