SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 11, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill.
At their annual meeting, Southern Baptists re-elected their president, adopted statements on their views about major cultural issues, and discussed how to deal with sexual abuse and racial discrimination in the church.
They also brought to center stage questions about church leadership roles that are appropriate for women in the church.
North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, who was elected Tuesday (June 11) to a second one-year term as president, had emphasized a “Gospel Above All” theme for the meeting. He said that message was linked to multicultural worship music throughout the meeting and the inclusive approach Baptists took in appointing leaders to the convention’s various committees.
“We’re not where we need to be on those things, but I believe a signal has been sent that we believe that’s where we need to go,” he said at a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting on Wednesday.
“Now it’s on us to take the right steps at the right time and to move in a way that shows that it’s not words or virtue signaling but it’s something that we mean because we believe the Bible teaches it.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that in the past, issues of diversity were usually discussed mostly in hallways among small groups of church delegates, known as messengers. At this meeting, the conversations were held on the main stage of the gathering, which drew more than 8,000 messengers.
A Wednesday panel discussion on the value of women talked about whether a woman could be pastor (no, since the SBC’s doctrine limits that role to men) and whether a woman could one day become a president of the Southern Baptist Convention (maybe, since nothing in the SBC’s governing documents precludes women from that role).
A messenger speaks to a motion during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS Photo/Butch Dill)
Panelists in a Tuesday discussion on racial reconciliation addressed how the issue affects both local congregations and the larger church. A pastor on the panel mentioned how a church member left his congregation when the congregant disagreed with the minister’s support of Baptists’ vote several years ago to repudiate the Confederate flag. Another mentioned how people of color are not likely to get to executive meeting rooms until they are in the same dining rooms with influential white leaders.
“It was definitely a different convention,” said Mohler. “There were more women’s voices and, by intentionality, more voices from African Americans and others who we very much want to be a part of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“It was clearly a move in that direction, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and I welcomed it and celebrate it,” he said.
Still, McKissic was concerned about a lack of diversity in the leadership of major Southern Baptist entities. He noted that the trustee chairman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told messengers the search committee had considered several minority candidates when hiring a new president. But McKissic was disappointed that the board chair of the Executive Committee declined to be as forthcoming about details of its recent hiring process for a new president.
Abuse victim advocates noted the many actions Southern Baptists took on the abuse issue — including the introduction of “Caring Well” handbooks and video resources. But they still urged the convention to set up a database to help track abusers and keep them from moving from church to church.
Messengers hold up an SBC abuse handbook while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill
“A clergy database must be established, documenting confessed, convicted or credibly accused abusers,” said advocate Cheryl Summers at a rally she organized outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on Tuesday. “We have seen some progress, but there is a lot more work to be done.”
On Wednesday, Baptists also passed resolutions, nonbinding statements that give a sense of the views of those gathered for the annual meeting. They included:
Urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and celebrating “recent bipartisan gains in state legislatures that restrict abortion.”
Calling the U.S. government to make religious liberty “a top priority of American foreign policy in its engagement with North Korea and China.”
Recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” but repudiating their misuse.
Urging the president and Congress to not include women in the Selective Service military registration, “which would be to act against the plain testimony of Scripture and nature.”
Affirming their “commitment to Christ comes before commitment to any political party.”
Standing at the pulpit of a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972, Aretha Franklin — known more for hits like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” — started singing her own rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
As she sang the ode to divine deliverance, Franklin prompted members of the congregation at the recording of the gospel album to shake their heads and raise their arms.
The R&B star took on the role of a minister of music as she rendered one gospel song after another.
“You’ve got a mighty good friend in Jesus,” she sings at one point.
“Sing, Aretha,” someone in the church seats shouts.
“Amazing Grace,” the documentary about the making of what would become the best-selling live gospel album, spends 87 minutes giving viewers a chance to see the woman known just as Aretha go back to her roots. The singer, who died at age 76 last year, was first recorded singing gospel music at her father’s church at age 14.
The title track features Franklin’s unique arrangement — almost 11 minutes long — with multiple notes attached to the words “amazing,” “grace” and other words in that time-honored hymn.
“That track was completely free in terms of meter, in terms of rhythm,” said Aaron Cohen, author of “Amazing Grace,” a 2011 book about the recording of the album. “She wasn’t being confined to a two- or three-minute pop song where she has to hit these notes to fill it out. Granted, every song she did she did her way, but more so with ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Aretha Franklin interacts with James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir while recording her “Amazing Grace” album at a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972. Photo courtesy of NEON
The long-awaited documentary was delayed for almost five decades in part because of technical issues: The film and its accompanying sound were not synchronized when the recording was made. Decades later, digital technicians were able to link them, enabling the documentary directed by Oscar-winning Sydney Pollack to be released.
Now the musical mastery of Franklin’s voice is combined with a bird’s-eye view of the church setting where she recorded gospel favorites while playing a Steinway or standing at a pulpit with a large mural of the baptism of Jesus behind her.
The film captures not only the freedom with which she expresses herself musically, but the call and response between the artist and James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir, outfitted in bright silver vests.
“As a singer she was the star but, in that environment, she was also there to serve as well,” said Cohen, former associate editor of DownBeat magazine, who has seen the documentary six times and previously viewed raw footage.
Delores Klyvert, a fan of Franklin’s, said “Respect” is one of her favorites but she got a fuller view of the artist as a woman of faith when she stopped by a movie theater in Washington, D.C., on Good Friday.
“I knew about her father, her church, her religious background,” said Klyvert, a member of a multicultural nondenominational church in Richmond, Va. “It was just that it brought it to the forefront and let me actually connect with it a little better. I knew it but it’s nothing like actually seeing and hearing.”
Near the start of the film Cleveland introduces Franklin by saying “she can sing anything — anything.” But the focus for the two nights of recording and the two LPs of the original album was the genre of gospel.
She sings the first selection, “Wholy Holy,” a cover of a Marvin Gaye song, at the Steinway grand piano, dressed in a long white dress with sequins, eyes often closed.
The film shows a predominantly black congregation, some men dressed in plaid jackets with wide lapels and some women dancing in the aisles, seeming to respond to both the method and the message of Franklin’s music.
“It does capture that emotional immediacy that there is in this kind of church,” said Cohen, “this whole character that is a community just comes so alive in a very vivid way in the film. And it’s about sharing. It’s about sharing an experience.”
As a camera pans the congregation, viewers can spot director Pollack, Franklin’s mentor and gospel singer Clara Ward and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger (who toured with gospel singer Dorothy Norwood in the same year the “Amazing Grace” album was released).
When Cleveland takes his turn at the piano to accompany Franklin, he adds more about her background.
“You know being a daughter of a Baptist minister, you had to know these hymns before you could do anything,” he said.
In the middle of the slow-moving “Precious Memories,” Franklin sings, “We ought to sing that one more time.”
Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was in the audience for the recording. In one poignant moment, he stands over his daughter seated at the piano and mops the sweat from her brow.
The Rev. C.L. Franklin wipes sweat from his daughter Aretha’s forehead during the 1972 recording of her “Amazing Grace” album in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of NEON
At another point, her father recounts a story of his trip to the dry cleaners where the proprietor speaks of missing Aretha’s involvement in church music.
“If you want to know the truth, she hasn’t ever left the church,” he said.
More than seven months after her death, Franklin is getting renewed attention on the big screen and beyond. On April 15, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for “her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”
A week later, on Easter Sunday, BET aired the Stellar Gospel Music Awards at which singers Regina Belle, Erica Campbell and Kelly Price sang in tribute to Franklin and her family was presented with the inaugural ICON Award in her honor.
The “Amazing Grace” documentary was shown at about two dozen locations across the country on Easter Sunday, followed by a live-streamed address of the Rev. William J. Barber II, who has co-led a revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, from Barber’s North Carolina church. A representative of the film said theaters in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y., sold out.
“When we relaunched the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018, Aretha called me to pledge her support,” said Barber in a promotional video about the film. “You are about to hear and see the queen of a gospel tradition that was forged in the fires of America’s worst injustice. This music has sustained millions through many dangers, toils and snares. It not only kept them. It moved them, like it did Aretha, to stand for justice.”
Days before Good Friday, the Rev. Stacey Hamilton continued to contemplate what she would preach about some of the last words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hamilton, one of seven black women preaching at “Women With a Word,” a service hosted by the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., prayed and did her “due diligence” by studying the meaning of the passage’s original Greek as she prepared to write her sermon.
In a growing tradition, at least a dozen churches across the country are hosting Good Friday services this year that feature seven African American female preachers, expounding in seven short sermons on the last seven phrases uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion.
“It’s a big deal because historically black women have been underrepresented,” said Hamilton, associate pastor of innovation and engagement at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville.
“There’s still a lot of traditional views as they relate to women in leadership and having the ability to actually declare the Word and people actually come out and listen to women,” added the pastor, who also works as a computer engineer. “It’s definitely a shift within the last couple of years.”
Vanderbilt University Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said she’s seeing “more and more” instances of black women preaching in “Seven Last Words” services.
Though some black women preachers recall being featured in Good Friday services decades ago, the phenomenon got a boost five years ago, when seven millennial black women preachers spoke at a Chicago church for an event sponsored by ShePreaches, a group that creates opportunities for younger African American clergywomen. The organization developed an online toolkit to encourage services on Good Friday featuring young adult black women in pulpits using womanist interpretations of the Bible.
The increased attention comes at a time when womanist theology, which focuses on the intersection of gender, race and class and empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora, is gaining momentum.
In March, womanist scholars of religion gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their first consultation, at the city’s Howard University School of Divinity, in 1988. Last April, a Center for Womanist Leadership opened at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary with Alice Walker, the novelist and poet and one of the founders of the womanist movement, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural gathering.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, said black women, similar to the women who remained at the foot of Jesus’ cross, can speak of resilience despite difficult circumstances facing their communities.
“It is also significant that the collective Black church is recognizing our gifts and allowing them to be exercised in pulpits across the country during the holiest week of the Christian calendar,” said Copeland-Tune, who will be preaching at a predominantly black church in Largo, Md. “Space is finally being made for us to edify God’s people. There are cracks in the stained-glass ceilings.”
The Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, the first woman pastor-elect of the predominantly black Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., said in an emailed statement that African American women can particularly relate to Jesus’ suffering and injustices that led to his crucifixion.
“Many live and work in the reality of what Womanist Scholar Jacquelyn Grant calls the ‘triple oppression’ of race, class and gender,” said Thompson, whose church’s Seven Last Words service will feature “six African American women and one Euro-American woman who is a daughter of our church.”
“The message of life after death remains a critical one in light of the present day racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies we see rampant in today’s society.”
The Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cited more than half a dozen churches featuring seven black women speaking at Seven Last Words services, from “Womanists of the Bay” in Berkeley, Calif., to “Sisters at the Cross” in Alexandria, Va.
The tradition’s inclusion of black women may be a result of concerted efforts to put them in pulpit positions.
More than a decade ago, the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, founded WomanPreach! Inc., which offers a Jarena Lee Preaching Academy to train women of African descent, and expanded it to include women and men.
She said many black women’s sense of calling to preach is now being undergirded by theological training.
“I think more women have gone to seminary and so they have gotten the degrees, not just the call but the training with that call,” said Bridgeman. “And so they’re unmoved by what might have been a historic resistance to their call because they’ve solidified for themselves their call.”
The Association of Theological Schools reports that the number of black women graduates of its affiliated schools almost tripled from 1988 to 1998 — increasing from 151 to 444. The number more than doubled again by 2018, reaching 994.
The Rev. Christine A. Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors,” said she’s seen an uptick over at least a decade in instances of seven black women preaching on Jesus’ seven last sayings, including in her Akron, Ohio, area.
“This is a wonderful movement, but there are still major barriers that remain for women in ministry,” said Smith, a pastor dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who is set to speak at a “He Is Risen” Seven Last Words service with six other black women preachers.
“Churches particularly in the African American community, particularly in the Baptist denominations, African American Baptist denominations, there still remains strong resistance to women becoming senior pastors.”
Hamilton and others say African American women preachers are likely to address issues of justice during their 10 minutes or so in the pulpit during the Seven Last Words services. The New Jersey pastor said she intends to mention human trafficking and the stricter requirements proposed by the Trump administration for some who have qualified previously for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hamilton studied several years ago at Bridgeman’s Jarena Lee Preaching Academy (named for the first African Methodist Episcopal Church female preacher) and said it was “transformational” in helping her learn about womanist preaching. She then recognized that she brings a unique perspective to preaching and not “the same as if a man is standing up to preach.”
Thus, the associate pastor said, she thinks it’s fitting that some churches are highlighting black women in their pulpits on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
“On Good Friday, we’re able to share in a way that says there’s room for you, there’s room for you here in the midst of Jesus’ struggle and Jesus’ suffering,’’ she said, “that you may have a place in salvation and that this is for you. You matter.”
Franklin, 40, who was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, talked with Religion News Service about Christian film success, how men should respond to the #MeToo movement, and the importance of observing the Sabbath.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You are a Hollywood producer, an ordained minister and the author of a new book about men and the #MeToo era. How do you juggle these three seemingly disparate areas of your life?
I don’t view them as disparate. My goal in everything I do is to uplift and inspire and use entertainment as a way to do that. So anything I’m doing, whether it’s writing a book, or producing a movie, or speaking or preaching, it’s all with the same goal: How does the person that is engaging with me relative to what I’m doing in that moment — how can their life become potentially better or how can I say something or do something that can inspire them?
It’s like one wheel, just different spokes.
DeVon Franklin. Courtesy photo
How did you learn about the story behind “Breakthrough,” and how much is it a true story rather than “based on a true story”?
I found out about “Breakthrough” while I was promoting “Miracles from Heaven.” I met the family, Joyce Smith and (her son) John Smith, and Pastor Jason Noble. And when I heard their story I was blown away. It was just so captivating. I just knew that I had to bring it to the big screen.
When you look at films, there’s “based on a true story,” there’s “inspired by a true story,” there’s “inspired by true events,” but based on a true story is when it’s closest to the real story. And “Breakthrough” is without a doubt based on a true story.
“Breakthrough” comes to theaters around Easter. How has the success of your previous productions, including the animated Christmas movie, “The Star,” enabled you to present this new one?
I think every success is like stair steps — one leads to the other. And so “Breakthrough” being my third produced film, certainly, is building on the success of “The Star” and building on the success of “Miracles from Heaven.”
In “The Star,” celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Kristin Chenoweth added their voices to that story. In “Breakthrough,” main characters are portrayed by actress Chrissy Metz and actor Mike Colter. Has there been a shift in the willingness of mainstream actors and actresses to appear in Christian films?
Yes. What is amazing about this story “Breakthrough” — it’s a true story, and I think that sometimes the desire to put it in the faith-based genre sometimes overshines the fact that it’s true. And more people are looking to do a true story because they connect to it more so than it being a part of the faith-based genre per se. So it’s a blessing that these projects are able to get the attention of such incredible talent.
Following the example of other brother filmmaker teams, there’s a movie called “Sinners Wanted” that just premiered at a black megachurch in Maryland in March. Do you see more people trying to develop Christian films for the big screen? And do you think those smaller projects have more of a chance of being recognized by Hollywood than in the past?
I’m not familiar with that particular movie. I do think that there’s a lot of growth in this space. The Erwin brothers, who are my good friends, they did “I Can Only Imagine.” And that success led to an incredible new opportunity with Lionsgate for more projects to come through, which is great.
I have my deal here at Fox. The Kendrick brothers, who also do inspirational faith-based movies, they have a deal with Sony. I think ultimately as the right movies are developed and people find them, it’ll allow for even more new filmmakers and new films that may not currently be on the radar to emerge.
DeVon Franklin, from left, Jeff Lockyer and Danielle Strickland participate in a panel discussion about sexual misconduct with the Willow Creek Association near Chicago. Video screenshot
Turning to a completely different subject, you have spoken in a new video resource about ministry and #MeToo. What are some key tips you suggest for men to help reduce the chances of women becoming victims of sexual abuse or harassment?
One of the reasons why I wanted to write the book is because I do believe that, as men, we need to become better. And part of that is learning to love, and that means considering others’ needs before ours and putting our integrity and our character above the desire to sometimes feed those selfish impulses.
I challenge every man to not look at the #MeToo movement as a women’s movement. It’s not. We need to be a part of this movement. Whether we have been harassed ourselves or not, we need to help. It takes both of us to get it done. We have to be a part of the solution ’cause if not, I think we’re part of the problem.
You had spoken about how the #MeToo movement can cause some men to feel that they can’t or shouldn’t hire women who may be most qualified for a position in their church or other organization. What’s your advice for them?
My advice is to not allow fear to dictate decision-making, because, any man that’s afraid to hire a woman, it’s because of fear and a misconception of what’s really going on.
I think that it’s important that we hire the very best people. And if that happens to be a woman, we need to hire her. And, to me, a man that’s afraid to do that says more about the man than it does the woman. And it’s so important to not use #MeToo as an excuse to be afraid.
Let’s use #MeToo and #TimesUp as an excuse to become better and do that in every area of our life, including our hiring practices.
As someone raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, how do you keep your Sabbath even as you work on round-the-clock projects related to film and faith?
The first day that I was in Hollywood, I literally said when I was interviewing for the company that managed Will Smith, “I won’t take this internship if it requires me to work on the Sabbath.” And, every single job that I’ve ever taken since then, I’ve made it a part of it.
And observing the Sabbath is so important for a number of reasons, not just spiritual reasons, but also practical reasons. We are not built to run 24/7. And what I have found is if we block out some time to rest, people conform around that. I’ve been on set, producing films, and then I’m like, “Hey, all right, the sun is almost down. I got to go.”
It’s been integral to my success. And I highly recommend it to everyone ’cause I think it really makes a big difference.
Jimmy Jenkins and his brother, Joshua, stood in front of the crowd at a local AMC movie theater and admitted to being overwhelmed.
After showing their new movie, “Sinners Wanted,” for free the previous weekend at the black megachurch where their father preaches, on Friday (March 22) they were in a nearby theater filled with people who had paid for tickets to watch their first joint film project.
Like at least two other brother filmmaker teams before them, the Jenkins siblings are hoping their independent film will continue to expand the depiction of biblically based stories on the big screen.
They have chosen a particularly provocative storyline: A preacher named Leo Shepherd befriends, dates and marries a prostitute named Ginger “GiGi” Clementine.
“It came from the book of Hosea — Hosea, Chapter 3, verse 1 — when God told Hosea to go love a prostitute to show Israel how much he loves her,” said Jimmy Jenkins, the younger of the two brothers, in an interview.
“I wanted to take it and create it into a modern-day story that people can understand how much God loves humanity.”
Near the start of the movie, Gigi comes into the black Washington, D.C., church, beaten and bruised after a difficult night. An usher asks a scantily clad Gigi: “Why are you disturbing our service?”
Shepherd, the brand-new pastor, responds with a verse about God’s grace.
“She can have a seat. It’s all right,” he says.
The movie, which focuses on the need for forgiveness and on welcoming people frowning church elders considered undesirable, was presented last year at several film festivals, including the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Brothers Joshua, left, and Jimmy Jenkins at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden Film Ministry’s premiere of the “Sinners Wanted” film on March 16, 2019, at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Church of Glenarden
Jenkins, 28, a filmmaker since age 22, partnered with his older brother, the leader of the young adult and drama ministries at their father’s First Baptist Church of Glenarden, to present the film through their company Jenk Ink LLC. They follow others in the faith-related film business, including brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, creators of “Woodlawn,” and Alex and Stephen Kendrick, whose movie “War Room” had the seventh-highest box office success for a Christian film.
Jimmy Jenkins said he sought out the Kendrick brothers for advice last year and their discussion encouraged him.
“They told me that the God idea works,” he said. “That’s one of the big things I got from it: Follow God’s will before you try to follow your will and when you do that, God can really bless you.”
Some of the Kendricks’ earliest films were supported by volunteers from their Albany, Ga., church who provided most of the cast, crew and catering.
Similarly, the Jenkins brothers have relied on their church for support of their production, with many of the extras coming from their Maryland congregation.
Their independent film, which has a six-figure budget, was shot in 16 days, with some scenes set in two neighboring Baptist churches in Washington, D.C. The directors coordinated around the schedules of their more well-known actors, including Lamman Rucker (of “Greenleaf,” an Oprah Winfrey Network drama about a family that runs a black megachurch) and Clifton Powell (of “Ray,” the 2004 movie about musician Ray Charles).
After selling out at the movie theater, the film is set to screen again the last weekend in March. Jenkins said he’s hoping it will expand to other theaters and churches.
Rucker, who played a church elder who declared that GiGi “doesn’t look like a Christian to me,” said in a panel discussion after the premiere that productions like these are “a labor of love” for actors like him.
“This wasn’t about getting paid,” he said. “This wasn’t about getting famous.”
Powell, a Washington, D.C., native, added in the same discussion that their participation helps dispel a fallacy about African-American actors leaving their hometowns behind when they head to Hollywood.
“When they say DC and it’s young men like this, we’re going to be here,” said Powell, who plays the church’s facilities director. “It’s all about relationships and it’s all about where we keep our minds as entertainers.”
He added that — as has been the case for some Christian films picked up by major companies — movies don’t have to be produced in Hollywood to gain a following.
“The power is right here in this church,” he said. “All y’all got to do is go out and support the movie and Hollywood will come to your house.”
Ginger and Leo, played by Ashley Rios and Kenneth Wayne, in the new film “Sinners Wanted.” Photo courtesy of Jenk Ink