In one of the most historic events for my denomination, last week the messengers at the annual Southern Baptist Convention elected their first African American president. Pastor Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans will be the man tasked with leading our denomination. I believe his election will be a marker for major changes in the SBC.
My denomination was founded in 1845, in large part, due to a split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. In 1995 we passed a resolution publically apologizing for our participation in slavery and segregation. Pastor Luter’s election is critical to making a further statement about abandoning this horrific part of our past.
While many have written on what his election means for our denomination as a whole, I would like to share with you what his election means to me on a personal level. I’ve debated about posting this blog, fearing I may somehow detract attention from the importance of the moment. But I believe it is better if we continue sharing about the significance of his election to show our complete support for his leadership.
I grew up in several large cities (not the ‘burbs but not the inner city). I rarely encountered racism. I had several Hispanic friends, a few Asian friends, and a few African-American friends. My father would tell me stories of his childhood. His story is very different than mine. Racism raged in his tiny hometown in South Alabama.
On May 3, 1959 a white city councilman from Union Springs took a brave stand. Pastor G. W. Smiley was celebrating his 54th anniversary at Elizabeth Baptist Church, and the church invited Martin Luther King, Jr. from Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery to preach the afternoon sermon. The city councilman, Sam S. Rainer, decided to attend with his young son, my father.
If any other white person had attended, the packed church would have feared something was awry. My grandfather stood silently at the back. He grew up with many of the people in the church. His mother died of cancer when he was 10. His father drowned his remaining days in alcohol. The Finneys, an African American family, took him in and raised him. David Finney, their young child, became his best friend. As my grandfather left the church, he spoke memorable words to my father about the energetic, young preacher, “This is someone you want to remember. He will be important in history.”
I am named after my grandfather. I only wish to be half the man he was.
I’m 32 years-old. I’m white. I can’t imagine the horrors of racism others have experienced. And where racism is present, it should be extinguished at all costs. It is evil. It is anti-gospel.
Racism is not a predominant theme in my life. I have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy to thank for that. Pastor Luter’s election continues this legacy. He is leading the SBC in the right direction.
I had the honor of sitting next to an African American pastor and friend as Pastor Luter was elected. This friend told me a story I had never heard. It was just two generations ago that his mentoring pastor was denied the pulpit at my current church because of the color of his skin. He then told me how much it meant when he recently stood in the same pulpit his mentoring pastor was denied. I invited him to preach simply because he’s a phenomenal preacher and a friend. But now I know why it was so important when my church gladly listened to the content of his message and graciously welcomed him as a partner in ministry. Today everyone in my church would be horrified at the thought of silencing the preaching of God’s Word simply because of the skin color of the preacher.
Tears streamed as we cheered and clapped together for Pastor Luter. As he accepted his historic leadership role, he used a white handkerchief to wipe tears from his eyes. I could not help but to see this white handkerchief as a symbol of Christ’s righteousness, wiping away tears of segregation and transforming them into joyful tears of unity in diversity.
I do not know Pastor Luter personally, but my father does. From my father, I’ve heard several stories of his courageous leadership. I’m thrilled about his election as our president. I’m delighted to follow Pastor Luter’s leadership. It’s an important moment in our denomination’s history. I pray that by electing Pastor Luter, his presidency will come to represent a shift towards more diversity in the SBC.
In our denomination Jim Crow is dead, and Jesus Christ is alive.
Indeed. Thank God Almighty.