Luter Says SBC Is ‘Walking This Thing’
Last summer, when UrbanFaith talked to New Orleans pastor Rev. Fred Luter, he had just been elected to the first vice presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. No other African American has ever risen as high as Luter in SBC leadership. Now Luter tells NPR that if he is elected to the presidency this year (he announced his intention to run in January), it will send a message that the denomination is serious about its efforts to diversify. “It will say something to the country and to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing,” said Luter.
SBC Wants to Hear From Black/Hispanic Churches
Luter’s rise coincides with other SBC diversity efforts. The denomination has also created a three-year African American Advisory Council “to communicate the perspectives of black churches and their leaders to Southern Baptist Convention entity leaders” and a Hispanic Advisory Council “held its inaugural meeting in early February in Fort Worth, Texas,” with other “ethnically-oriented advisory groups” possibly coming in the future, Baptist Press reported.
McKissic Says More Black Leaders Needed
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Arlington, Texas, first suggested Luter for the presidency in 2010, according to Associated Baptist Press. ABP quoted McKissic as saying on his blog that he didn’t believe “any serious additions of black churches joining the SBC” would be forthcoming until there are “at least two-to-three minority entity heads.” ABP also noted that “McKissic has spoken widely about his experience visiting the SBC headquarters in Nashville in 2007, when he asked to meet the highest ranking African American there and was informed it was the head custodian.”
Moody Publishers Increases Offerings for People of Color
As UrbanFaith previously reported, the SBC isn’t the only majority white denomination that is actively pursuing racial and ethnic diversity. Now, at least one Christian publisher is following this trend. Moody Publishers has announced that it “plans to develop products for urban communities by expanding its offerings for African-Americans, Latinos and urban influencers,” Christian Retailing reported. This effort is part of a restructuring that strengthens its collaborations with the radio and education ministries of Moody Bible Institute and its new “across the globe, cultures and generations” vision, according to CR.
“Brother White” Preaches Church Integration Message
Racial reconciliation seems to be a growing trend in Christian entertainment as well. Now comes “Brother White,” a television movie that tells the story of a white Southern California mega-church pastor’s awkward efforts to fit in at a small black church in inner-city Atlanta after he accepts a position there as senior pastor. “Evening Shade” alum David A.R. White stars in the film, “Sister, Sister” and “227” star Jackée Harry plays the church’s former first lady, and gospel music artist BeBe Winans guest stars as himself. Eurweb.com reports that Harry told a group of television critics her work in the film is some of the best she’s done “in a long time.” “Brother White” airs tonight at 9 p.m. EST on GMC.
What do you think?
Is pursuing ethnic and racial diversity a hot new trend or the only logical response to demographic realities?
The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.
The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.
A Long Road Ahead
“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.
Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking
NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.
Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.
“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.
Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach
“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.
“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.
Executive Vice President at Covenant Ministries of Benevolence Harold Spooner worked with Walter and others to create a Five-fold Test for multi-ethnic ministry instead of hiring a point person.
“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.
With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.
“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.
Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead
Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.
In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.
Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity
Dr. Alvin Sanders is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.
“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.
“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.
“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.
Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.
About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.
Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust
In 2004, the EFCA hired Rev. Dante Upshaw to serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.
“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”
African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.
SBC Reports Its Progress
Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.
“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.
“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.
A Vocal Critic in the SBC
Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.
In two blog posts last spring, McKissic outlined accusations of egregious racism within SBC’s churches. The Associated Baptist Press took note.
“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.
McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.
A Painful, Rewarding Process
As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.
“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”
He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”
CHANGING HISTORY: Rev. Fred Luter's election as first vice president puts him in line to possibly become the SBC's first black president.
Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 13, a milestone that many believe may eventually lead him to assume the denomination’s top position. UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to Luter by phone Monday. The conversation focused on Luter’s historic ascent to leadership in a denomination that was founded, in part, as a means of preserving a religious justification for the institution of slavery in America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you always been a Southern Baptist?
Fred Luter: Franklin Avenue at one time was an all-white Southern Baptist church, but in the late 1970s, there was a white flight. Whites moved out of the neighborhood; blacks moved back in. The white congregation literally turned the building over to the local Baptist association, so that it would be used for the people in this community. I’ve always given them credit for that. They could have torn it down or sold it to the highest bidder. They knew the neighborhood was changing, so they wanted it to be used for the people in this community. I came in 1986, so the church was already a Southern Baptist church.
The initial New York Times report on your election noted a Southern Baptist connection to slavery. Were you aware of that when you became pastor at Franklin Avenue?
No, to be honest, I was not. I had no idea at all. … When I found out, I was already too deep in it. I doubt if a lot of people who are part of our churches are aware. … Back in 1845, the convention was started as a split between the American Baptist Convention. They started the Southern Baptist Convention based on the issue of slavery. That’s part of our dark past.
What is the significance of your election?
I didn’t realize how significant it was until I started getting all these requests for interviews. It has been incredible. I’ve been a part of this since ’86 and … I never thought it would get this much notoriety. I guess if something happens to the president, you it. … We lost over 4000 members in Katrina who were displaced all over the country and I started getting calls from people all across the country saying, “I saw you in this paper. I saw you in that paper. I saw you on CNN.”
Your church lost 4,000 members from Hurricane Katrina?
We had grown from 50 members back in ’86 to about 8,000. We were the largest Southern Baptist church in the state of Lousiana, white or black. God had blessed us in a mighty, mighty way. But then Katrina came and destroyed all of that. Our church was flooded with nine feet of water.
The Baptist Press report on the convention noted its emphasis on ethnicity, and unity. Was there a concerted effort, in the pursuit of diversity, to elect an African American?
Honestly, I don’t think it was, because this report involving ethnicity was really a resolution that came forward in our convention last year in Orlando … that this convention was going to vote on. I think it just so happened that my election came at the same time that this was a major resolution. … I think the background of it, honestly, is that next year the convention is going to be in New Orleans, and I got some calls saying, “Hey man, it would be really nice, since the convention is going to be in New Orleans, that you be in a position of leadership in your hometown.”
What is the value of the diversity resolution?
I think it’s critical. Back in , the convention made a public apology for their beginnings, for their founding on slavery, and they apologized to all the African American pastors in the convention. … That was the start of what’s now becoming something we’re beginning to see, because in this convention there are other ethnicities. Of course, it’s predominantly Anglo, but now we have African Americans, we have Asians, we have Hispanics, and so many in the leadership roles are saying it doesn’t make any sense to have all these different ethnic groups at our convention and the leadership role is lily white. Those in leadership said, “Let’s start doing something about this.”
I think it’s great. It says to those of us who are part of the convention that, yes, this is a part of our past, but we have been talking about including other ethnic groups for a while; now it’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is. Let’s start walking it instead of just talking it. I think it’s now finally coming together.