NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Southern Baptist Convention is taking its biggest step to date to confront the legacy of support for slavery and segregation that still looms over the denomination.
The two-day “Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” summit in Nashville wasn’t a how-to seminar on making churches more diverse; it wasn’t long on solutions. It was more of a call to arms, with speaker after speaker proclaiming the evil of racial divisions.
Russell Moore, who helped bring the event together, was blunt about why he believes racism is an urgent spiritual matter. Racial divisions and hatreds don’t just hurt people in this world, he said in the opening presentation on Thursday. “Hatred of others sends people (who hold those views) to hell.”
Moore, who is white, is the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which organized the event. He said he often hears complaints from pastors that people won’t attend a diverse church because they want to worship with others who are like them.
“Sure they do. And I’d like to fight and fornicate and smoke weed….” Moore said to applause and laughter and shouts of appreciation that drowned out the end of his sentence.
The two-day summit was remarkable for both its diversity and its frankness. Speakers did not shy away from controversial topics like the recent killings of unarmed African Americans by police that have propelled the “black lives matter” movement.
Afshin Ziafat, an Iranian-American pastor who converted from Islam to Christianity as a young man, urged those in attendance to pray for terrorists and members of ISIS. He even compared the Apostle Paul, before his conversion to Christianity, to Osama bin Laden, saying that Paul had hunted down and persecuted Christians.
“Before I am an American, I am a Christian,” he said, echoing a theme that the commonality of being a Christian should overpower differences in race and culture.
The Rev. Tony Evans, an African-American pastor, author and broadcaster, put it this way: “Jesus is not asking for me to be you or you to be me, but for both of us to be like him.”
Frank Page, the executive director of the SBC’s executive committee, praised the demographic changes the denomination has seen over the past couple of decades. Of the 50,000 Southern Baptist congregations, about 3,500 are African American, over 3,000 more are Latino and another 2,000 are Asian.
“We’ve seen great changes, but not at every level of SBC life,” Page said, noting that the denomination’s leadership and much of its paid staff remains white – including Page.
He said he encourages the denomination’s non-white members to become more involved and seek out leadership positions. But he also said the denomination will not use a quota system to diversify the leadership.
In an interview during a break, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who in 2012 became the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the summit “amazing” and said he fully expects positive change to come out of it.
“I look around at all the conversations that are happening, and I think this summit will have a lasting effect for years to come,” he said. “There’s no way you can come to a conference like this and not be moved.”
Moore, in his speech, acknowledged the lack of concrete suggestions for change, saying, “We don’t know how to do this….There’s no program to get your church racially reconciled in a year.” But he also told the crowd, “For people that have all the marks on our history that we have, it seems that God is working and giving us another chance to get this right.”