Southern Baptists Celebrate Historic Racial Reconciliation Progress
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.
By Diana Chandler
Sunday, Feb. 14, was Racial Reconciliation Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention.
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, 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 told Baptist Press. 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.
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 told BP. “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.”