News Articles

Okla. elects 1st Native American president

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. (BP)–Emerson Falls, pastor of Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and a member of the Sac and Fox and Choctaw tribes, was elected as the first Native American president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Nov. 11.

Messengers, meeting in the Tuesday morning session at The Church at BattleCreek in Broken Arrow, affirmed Falls in a close race with Doug Melton, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. After an initial show of ballots by hand, outgoing president Alton Fannin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Ardmore, declared the tally to be too close and asked for ballots to be collected and counted. The final results showed 243 ballots for Falls and 203 ballots for Melton.

Immediately after Falls’ election, convention officials scrambled to confirm that he was the first Native American to be elected president of the Oklahoma convention, which formally organized in 1906 and traces its roots to Muscogee Baptist Church. The church began on Sept. 9, 1832 with a congregation made up of “one Indian, two Caucasians and three Negroes,” according to several sources, including “The Two Became One: The Story of Oklahoma Southern Baptists” by Robert L. Ross.

“I’m sure there has been no president of the BGCO who claimed to be or promoted himself as a Native American since its formation in 1906,” said J.M. Gaskin, Oklahoma Baptist historian and former historical secretary of the BGCO. “It is logical to assume several of our presidents could claim some sort of blood ancestry, but none identified themselves as such.”

Eli Sheldon, the current BGCO historical secretary, added, “Owing to the lack of Baptist territorial records, we cannot verify if the conventions in Oklahoma prior to the BGCO had a true Native American president. To the best of our knowledge, none did. Someone has to be the first in everything, and I believe Emerson Falls is that man.”

Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said Falls is a “respected leader in Oklahoma and the Southern Baptist Convention and will be an excellent leader.”

“The fact that he is Native American is an eloquent exclamation point on his election,” Jordan said. “He represents not only the ethnic diversity of Oklahoma Baptists but also the continued openness of our people to give every person regardless of ethnicity a place at the leadership table. He was not elected just because he is Native American but because he has proven himself a trusted leader. I look forward to working with this capable leader.”

Jordan added that he believes Falls’ election will strengthen the bond between the BGCO and its Native American constituency.

“Our Native American peoples are a rich hew of the intricately woven fabric of Oklahoma Baptist life. Our roots grow deep among our Native American peoples,” Jordan said. “I have for years prayed for and worked to see our Native American people move more deeply into the heart of Oklahoma Baptist life.

“I am well aware of some of the historical challenges and their reticence to fully embrace the convention and its work,” he added. “I have enjoyed a growing relationship with our Native American leaders, and believe that the election of Dr. Falls should go a long way in signaling the love and respect all Oklahoma Baptists have for our Native Americans.”

While the ballots for the presidency were being counted, messengers elected by acclamation Aaron Summers, pastor of First Baptist Church in Perry, as first vice president and Blake Gideon, pastor of First Baptist Church in Inola, as second vice president.

In other business, messengers, who totaled 856, adopted a 2009 Cooperative Program budget of $25.2 million. The BGCO will continue to utilize 60 percent of the budget for state CP ministries, with the remaining 40 percent marked for SBC national and international missions and ministries.

Resolutions of appreciation were approved for the host church, for John Parrish for his service as interim president of Oklahoma Baptist University, for retired BGCO preschool and children’s ministry specialist Sheri Babb and for Ramon Aleman, director of the Robert Haskins School of Leadership.

Other resolutions addressed the issues of prayer and spiritual awakening, the sanctity of life, urging parents to seek God’s guidance in making informed decisions and being personally involved in their children’s education, the development and implementation of child protection policies and procedures for all churches, Christian purity, encouraging Baptists to pray for elected officials and support them through personal words of encouragement, and support of the U.S. military.

The only miscellaneous business was a motion from Wesley Kenney, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Valliant, that at future conventions at least three microphones be placed in the audience so messengers can speak during convention sessions. The motion carried.

In his annual address to the convention, Jordan said that despite some challenging times in the past year, “Oklahoma Baptists are healthy and strong and to God be the glory.”

But he said he still is looking for the day when God will step down and by a power that can only be described as miraculous do something dramatic.

Using the story in Luke 5 of Christ challenging Simon Peter to let down his nets again after a fruitless night of fishing, Jordan challenged messengers to seek a miracle-working God.

“It is my dream for Oklahoma Baptists. I don’t just want to see God do good things. I want to see God do awe-inspiring things,” he said. “I’m not praying for little dribbles, I’m praying for showers of blessings.

“How do we do that? We must hear the Master’s voice,” Jordan said, stressing that “we are too often interested in hearing the voices of others than the voice of the Master.”

Jordan said tradition has the church “tied up in knots.”

“We have more tools, ability, money and firepower than at any time in history,” he said. “This is the best of times, yet it is the most challenging. We only think God can do it one way. Well, hello; He’s doing it a lot of ways today. And I’m thankful for that.”

Referring to the text, Jordan said, “We’re to be about the fish that are in the water. It’s not about us. Are we ready to cut bait or fish? It’s time to go where the fish are.”

Jordan said the question of the hour is “Will you hear the voice of the Master, and will you obey Him?”

“I’m praying that God will move among us in so many ways that when we let down our nets, we would be so obedient to His voice that He would be so pleased that when we draw in our nets, it would break them.”

Jordan said he could go home from the annual meeting and rejoice in all the good things Oklahoma Baptists are doing because he is thankful.

“But, let me tell you something,” he concluded. “I believe God isn’t done yet. I believe He has mighty things He wants to do. And I’m looking forward to the day when I can, with you, fall on my face and say, ‘Almighty God, I want to leave everything behind. So speak Lord, I’m listening.'”

In his presidential address, Fannin encouraged messengers to pray for the new president-elect of the United States, Barack Obama.

He said while attending a funeral two days after the election, his 94-year-old high school English teacher leaned over to him and said, “Our vote didn’t turn out right, did it? We’re going to have to pray harder than ever.”

“My response was, ‘Maybe that’s why God let it happen,'” he said. “She was saying if John McCain had been elected, we wouldn’t have had to pray as hard.”

Quoting 1 Timothy 2:1, Fannin said Paul urged Timothy to pray for those in authority, that we may live a peaceful life.

“Paul was instructing us to pray for those in authority — in our case the president — that we may lead quiet and peaceful lives and have the freedom to spread the Gospel,” Fannin said. “At the time Paul wrote this, Nero was emperor of Rome. Nero made many horrible mistakes. He started the fire that nearly burned down the city of Rome, then accused the Christians of starting the fire and began to inflict persecution on Christians.”

Fannin, who completed his second term as BGCO president, said it is not that people are not likely to pray for Obama because they are confused about him and aren’t sure what he stands for.

“God convicted me that some people are struggling simply out of racial prejudice,” he said. “Southern Baptists didn’t get it right in 1845. We were on the wrong side of the slavery issue. We didn’t get it right in the 1950s and 1960s, when we were more Southern than Baptist. But this is about today — 2008 — the United States has a president who is African American. God give us the opportunity to learn a lesson.”

Fannin said he believes God expects Southern Baptists to get it right this time.

“What you say about our new president will say as much about you as it says about him,” Fannin said. “All my life, God has said this is an issue you can’t be wrong about because you preach God loves all people, and He died for them. It’s burning deep in my heart that we as Southern Baptists not send the wrong message to the world.

“I pray the words that come out of our mouths will be the right words, the words of Jesus, because He is the power of salvation to all men.”

Next year’s annual meeting will be Nov. 9-10 at First Baptist Church in Moore. Elected to preach the annual sermon was Hance Dilbeck, pastor of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

    About the Author

  • Bob Nigh