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NY Times op-ed spurs discussion of race & the SBC

NASHVILLE (BP) — A black Oklahoma minister’s New York Times op-ed “renouncing [his] ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention” has drawn responses from a range of African Americans who say they will continue to cooperate with the convention as it pursues racial reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the op-ed’s author, Lawrence Ware, explained his views in an interview with Baptist Press, noting he does not believe Southern Baptists by and large are intentionally racist. He also said he likely would have “softened” some of his language against the SBC if given an opportunity to rewrite the op-ed.

Ware, a staff minister at Prospect Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, wrote in a July 17 Times op-ed that “a deep commitment to white supremacy” within the SBC helped prompt his renunciation of convention involvement, as did “homophobia” in the convention.

Co-director of the Center of Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University, Ware wrote that a key factor in his decision to renounce ordination in a Southern Baptist church was the SBC’s failure at its Phoenix annual meeting in June to “immediately” adopt a resolution submitted by Texas pastor Dwight McKissic denouncing white supremacy “of the so-called alt-right.”

Ware also criticized the SBC for expelling from its annual meeting “activists who tried to raise awareness about the ways in which the convention fails its [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] members.”

At the annual meeting, an initial decision by the Resolutions Committee not to consider McKissic’s resolution was upheld by a vote of messengers. But those preliminary decisions yielded to a June 14 resolution, presented by the Resolutions Committee and adopted overwhelmingly by messengers, which decried “every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Approximately five pro-gay and pro-transgender protesters were asked to leave the Phoenix Convention Center when members of their group “inappropriately used the official convention logo and were identified as violating the published SBC materials distribution policy,” convention manager William Townes told Baptist Press. “It was later discovered that one of the protestors who was requested to leave was wearing a counterfeit guest badge.”

Ware wrote in The Times, “As a black scholar of race and a minister who is committed to social justice, I can no longer be part of an organization that is complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right, whose members support the abhorrent policies of Donald Trump and whose troubling racial history and current actions reveal a deep commitment to white supremacy.”

SBC ‘good willed’

Ware told BP that if given the opportunity to rewrite his Times piece, he “probably would have changed” the phrase “a deep commitment to white supremacy” to reflect his belief Southern Baptists are “good willed” but “maybe not as sensitive to the voices of people of color as they could be.” Racial insensitivity among Southern Baptists, he added, seems “un-willful.”

The phrase “white supremacy,” as used by Ware, refers to “seeing things through the lens of being white in America,” he said. The op-ed is “not calling the SBC white supremist. That’s a huge difference because a white supremacist is like a KKK member or a neo-Nazi. But white supremacy, however, can almost be benign at times.”

Ware does not “have a problem with the SBC’s stance” on homosexuality, he said. His criticism is only of a “lack of love” for people struggling with same-sex attraction among some Southern Baptist churches, “which is not quite an SBC thing … but I do think the SBC could do a better job with helping churches” address “that very vulnerable population.”

Prospect Church, where Ware serves, will continue to cooperate with the SBC, including financial support of convention causes, ministry partnership and reporting vital statistics through the convention’s Annual Church Profile, pastor Lee Cooper told BP.

“We support Rev. Ware’s decision that he makes personally,” said Cooper, a member of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s Board of Directors from 1999-2003. “As a church, that has not been our determination to withdraw from the SBC. But I do support his decision and also can affirm some experiences that he’s had with the SBC. That makes it worthy of our continued discussion as we work [toward] some resolutions that I think need to be addressed.”

Media coverage

Terry Mattingly of the Get Religion blog, which monitors media coverage of religion, critiqued news outlets for “placing a bright national spotlight” on Ware’s views while downplaying the SBC’s multiethnic ministries.

The same day Ware’s op-ed was published, Mattingly noted, some 950 African American Southern Baptists convened in North Carolina for the Black Church Leadership and Family Conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources. See related stories here and here.

Mattlingly asked why news outlets reported sparsely on the conference while devoting significant attention to Ware, whose “profile” appeared to be “higher” among liberal-leaning publications “than it is in the national network of black Southern Baptist leaders.”

Mark Croston, LifeWay’s national director for black church partnerships, told BP the Black Church Leadership and Family Conference has provided training for predominantly black churches for nearly 25 years and illustrates the SBC’s progress toward ethnic diversity.

“In light of the current conversation I would ask, ‘Is the SBC perfect?’ Answer, ‘No,'” Croston said in written comments, “and neither is any other religious body. Changing groups only means I trade one set of challenges for another. Second question, ‘Is the SBC moving in the right direction?’ Answer, ‘Yes.’

“Twenty-five years ago there were about 400 black churches in the SBC. Today there are about 4,000 black churches and another 3,000 churches of other minority groups. Today the SBC has been said to be the most ethnically diverse religious body in America. On any given Sunday, the Gospel is preached in SBC churches in the USA in over 70 different languages,” said Croston, author of a chapter in B&H Academic’s 2017 book “Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.”

“Today the SBC is open to bringing all people to the table, though sometimes that is a struggle. But with every struggle, our goal is to make our denomination look more and more like Heaven,” said Croston, citing Revelation 7:9-10.

Byron Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, told The Tennessean when queried about Ware, “The SBC has some racist people in it, but so [do] other denominations as well. I am one that believes it’s better not to leave, but rather to stay and help educate other brothers and sisters about problems whether it be racism or some other issue.”

McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, told The Tennessean he values partnership with the SBC because of its mission and ministry work worldwide.

“I think the Southern Baptist Convention is worth trying to bring healing and hope,” McKissic said. “The majority of the people’s hearts are in the right place, but there is still some work to be done.”

While McKissic and Ware both said they know African Americans who have left the SBC over the past year, Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware, said he does not know of anyone closely connected with convention life who has left.

Yet Smith, who is African American, said he disagrees with the initial decisions by the Resolutions Committee and the convention not to act on McKissic’s resolution.

“That was something that was burdensome to a portion of the convention,” Smith said, “and there were other parts of the convention that just didn’t seem to realize how burdensome that was to some other brothers and sisters.”

‘You can’t always run’

Gabriel Stovall, a Georgia pastor, state convention missionary and campus minister, wrote in a column submitted to BP that he “identified” with Ware’s “struggle to walk away from the convention.” But he also sensed “the voice of Jesus telling me … stay put” in order to benefit from the SBC’s multiethnic ministry.

“Every time I get the itch to walk away,” Stovall, pastor of Atlanta’s Butler Street Baptist Church, wrote, “I think of the hearts who have been changed by dialogue with others who are different, and through true, tangible love shown even while struggling to understand — starting with my own heart.”

Stovall added, “Staying doesn’t mean 100 percent agreement … For me, staying put can be boiled down to one concept alone: That is my trust in the fact that Jesus knows more than I do about the power of my testimony. You can’t always run from everything and everyone that you deem problematic — not if you are to follow Christ’s example.”

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, told The Christian Post he becomes frustrated when it appears the SBC’s active pursuit of racial reconciliation lags behind the language of its resolutions.

Page asked “people of color constantly to give us feedback on what’s happening, how they feel, and if they see enough progress.” He acknowledged the distress some individuals from racial minority groups have felt and said the SBC is engaged in an ongoing effort to address it.