When the results were announced that the Southern Baptist Convention had overwhelmingly selected their next president, Tyrone Barnette shed a tear.
“Yes, there were tears in my eyes,” said the pastor of Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, GA. “It is a momentous occasion.”
The predominantly white Southern Baptist denomination made history and headlines late Tuesday when they elected Fred Luter, Jr. their first African-American president. Luter is pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in New Orleans.
According to news reports, Luter, who was the sole nominee, was supported by more than 7,000 members of the SBC. That is a big deal, considering that the denomination was founded in 1845 because of their support of the institution of slavery against northern Baptists.
Barnette believes this is a good move in the right direction. However, he is not naïve enough to believe that “we have arrived.”
“Any great movement starts out ceremonial,” he said. “There is a ceremonial portion to this moment for sure. It is the beginning of the healing process for our denomination.”
Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson has his reservations.
Richardson, who is chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in New York, said there is a danger that Luter’s election could be window dressing.
“There are two thoughts I have about it,” he said. “I do not want to take anything from my brother and this highly significant occasion in his life. It is an indication of God using him and an occasion of celebration for him.”
However, in looking at the reputation of the Southern Baptist denomination, Richardson said Luter’s election, and the value and validity in it will be determined by how consistent, how reflective, his election is in the operation and life of the denomination.
He believes there still resides in the denomination some racism and some reluctance to catch up with the rest of America. Take for example the comments of Richard Land, head of the denominations Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made weeks after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Land commented that he believed President Obama and black leaders were politically using the death of Trayvon Martin to advance. Land later apologized.
“I do not believe that has been eradicated by the ceremonial election of a black president,” Richardson said. “That is not to take away from his accomplishment. Yet at the same time, the, in my observation, the coming of it is not a consistent, throughout the organization.”
During a press conference Tuesday night, Luter addressed the denomination’s past.
“We cannot avoid that this convention started as a result of slavery. All of us have a past and all of us have done some things in our pasts that we are not happy about,” he said. “We cannot do anything about that past. It is done and over with. However, we can do a lot about our future.”