NASHVILLE — The Rev. Rolland Slade says it is humbling to be the first.
For more than a century, a white man has led the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee — the board of leaders who manage the day-to-day operations of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
But that changed in June 16.
As an anti-racism movement swept across the country, the committee unanimously elected Slade, a Black Southern Baptist pastor in California, to serve as its new chair.
“It’s an honor, but I know that I stand on the shoulders of men,” the 62-year-old Slade said in a recent interview with The Tennessean. “There is a long list of guys who have been behind me, pushing me.”
Slade’s election is a personal milestone, but it also represents the seismic shift the evangelical denomination has made since its pro-slavery origins.
Views on race in the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention did not change overnight. For decades, racial reconciliation has been a work in progress, but for some it is too slow and the advancements made are not enough.
Now a cataclysmic police brutality case has pushed the convention’s racial reconciliation efforts back into the spotlight.
The shocking May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted many Americans to take a hard look at the country’s racist history and the systems still in place today that continue to disproportionately discriminate against people of color. It spurred nationwide protests and calls for change.
The conversations about racism happening in the broader culture have spilled over into Southern Baptist life.
Most recently, Baptist leaders in Alabama found themselves denouncing a pastor’s decision to give an invocation at a birthday celebration for Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Their response to the controversy is bookended by dozens of the congregational denomination’s top leaders publicly grieving Floyd’s death and the misuse of authority that led to it. They said equality is a biblical issue in a May 30 statement signed by all convention officers, its entity heads and the executive directors of state conventions:
“As a matter of Christian obedience and devotion, followers of Jesus Christ cannot remain silent when our brothers and sisters, friends and/or people we seek to win for Christ are mistreated, abused or killed unnecessarily.”
Some also did not let the moment pass without taking stock of the work still ahead for Southern Baptists. They say progress has been made, but there is still much to be done.
Racial reconciliation requires more than a few pronouncements and apologies, said the Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina.
“It can only be achieved by really entering into the experiences and pain of our brothers and sisters, understanding the trauma left by years of slavery and discrimination. As we do, we must build intentional relationships where we talk about present struggles and future solutions as peers,” Greear, who is white, said in an email to The Tennessean.
“We also must make absolutely clear that we stand against all injustice and discrimination. Any vestige of racism or white supremacy will not be tolerated among us.”
Southern Baptist Convention’s pro-slavery roots
For Southern Baptists, it also means continuing to contend with their denomination’s original sin.
The Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845, formed after Baptists in the North did not want to allow slaveholders in the South to serve as missionaries, said Barry Hankins, chair of Baylor University’s history department and co-author of “Baptists in America.”
Segregation in the church followed the Civil War, he said.
Up until the last 40 years, Baptist historians downplayed slavery as the key issue for the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hankins said. Now it is just acknowledged, he said.
“White supremacy is still in the DNA of America. It’s still in the DNA of the South. It’s still in the DNA of the Southern Baptist Convention. The best leaders acknowledge that, face it head on and work with it,” Hankins said.
“There are those that don’t want to acknowledge it, don’t believe it and want to ignore it. So you just have this sort of tension, even among white Southern Baptists, as to what to do about this.”
‘This is not just about symbols’: America’s reckoning over Confederate monuments
Hankins thinks tensions have increased since President Donald Trump took office. The brash and polarizing nature of this era has made cooperation and relationship building between Black and white Southern Baptists harder than it was a decade ago, he said.
A historic resolution and the first Black president
But 25 years have passed since the Southern Baptist Convention made one of its strongest statements to date addressing its pro-slavery roots. In 1995, the convention passed a racial reconciliation resolution that repudiated the evils of slavery, the sin of racism and apologized to African Americans for harm done.
Ahead of the sesquicentennial annual meeting in Atlanta, a group of Black and white Southern Baptists met to hash out the language of the resolution.
They came together in Nashville. Tennessee’s capital city, referred to by some as the buckle of the Bible Belt, was a catalyst in the civil rights movement. Its landmarks and institutions not only carry reminders of the racial division in society, but in the church as well. Both the predominately white Southern Baptist Convention and the historically Black National Baptist Convention are headquartered in the city.
Southern Baptists still talk about the 1995 resolution. Some viewed it as too little, too late, while others thought it was laudable, Hankins said.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr., senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, remembers the day it passed.
“It was a huge, huge move for this convention to pass the resolution apologizing for the past,” Luter said in an interview. “It was a proud day for me as an African American to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Seventeen years later, Luter, the great-great-great-grandson of slaves, would be elected the first Black president of the convention.
Luter, who ran unopposed, said his peers supported him not because he was Black, but because of the work he has done in his church, his ministry and through evangelizing.
“There’s nothing that we can do about our past, but there’s a whole lot we can do about our future,” Luter said.
Despite changes, some still leave
The convention has taken additional steps to move toward racial reconciliation since Luter’s presidency.
The convention passed a resolution in 2016 calling on Christians to stop flying the Confederate battle flag. Although its first attempt failed, Southern Baptists also disavowed white supremacy in 2017. The next year the executive committee, the 103-year-old panel that acts on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention when it is not in session, expelled a Georgia church on charges of racism.
The convention is in the process of making constitutional changes to state clearly that Southern Baptist churches must address discrimination as well as sexual abuse. This effort began in 2019, but the second and final vote was delayed after the denomination canceled its annual meeting due to the coronavirus.
This summer, Alabama state lawmaker Rep. Will Dismukes resigned as pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church following backlash for attending a birthday celebration for a slave-holding Confederate general who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of surrendered Black Union soldiers. The Nathan Bedford Forrest event occurred on the same day the state was honoring the late civil rights icon John Lewis.
In response, local Baptist leaders publicly reaffirmed their opposition to racism and grieved Dismukes’ actions. The lawmaker stepped down as pastor after meeting with church leaders.
These advances are not happening fast enough for some Southern Baptists, and they decide to leave the convention.
Recently, the Rev. John Onwuchekwa, a Black pastor who leads Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, announced he was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. In a lengthy July 9 online post, Onwuchekwa said the convention was failing to address racial inequality and was too closely aligned with the Republican Party.
“I trust God that none of our labor was in vain, but I do not see the utility of our church made up predominantly of ethnic minorities remaining in the SBC,” Onwuchekwa said. “Because rather than being an agent of change, I fear our presence has largely been an advertisement for other churches of similar makeup saying ‘Come in … the water’s fine.’ The sign I’d rather hold up is ‘Enter at Your Own Risk!’ ”
Greear said he will never know how hard it is for a leader of color to stay in the convention, but it is important to listen in these moments in order to better understand the pain and confusion of their experiences.
“We can’t be part of the solution until we understand the problem,” Greear said. “I am grateful for courageous members of color — pioneers — who have chosen to stay with us, clinging to the promises of Jesus for his church, and to fight for the unity Jesus has called us to.”
Calls for more diversity among Southern Baptist leadership
Calls for more progress are coming from leaders who choose to stay.
One change that can advance racial reconciliation in the convention is elevating a more diverse group of leaders to positions of authority, Luter said. He is not alone in that view.
“One of the things that lets me know that not only a convention, a church, a denomination, a company is interested in leveling the playing field is when people of color or different ethnic groups are elected or appointed in positions of leadership,” Luter said. “That says to me that we’re serious about dealing with racial reconciliation. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long, long way.”
Slade also wants to see more diversity among leadership.
“It’s something that we should be doing intentionally without being condescending or patronizing,” said Slade, senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church, which is the home of a small congregation in El Cajon, California.
Slade, previously part of a National Baptist congregation, has served at Southern Baptist churches for more than a quarter of a century and said it has been a great experience.
He was particularly drawn to the denomination’s Cooperative Program, a funding initiative that supports work across the convention through the financial contributions of its autonomous churches. He joined the executive committee in 2014 and has held various leadership roles in addition to his new position.
Slade, who grew up watching his parents fight for civil rights in San Diego, wants to help open up paths to leadership. He benefited from the mentoring of other Southern Baptist leaders like Luter and wants to pay that forward to the next generation.
This work must be intentional and ongoing, said the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the convention’s executive committee, which has added three full-time staff positions focused on diversity. As the larger society grapples with police brutality, Floyd is among the Southern Baptist leaders to bring racial equality issues back to the forefront within the convention.
“Until minority leaders and believers in the SBC sense true equality, then our work is not done,” Floyd, who is white and not related to George Floyd, said by email. “We have a need for more diverse leadership, more diverse churches, and more diverse voices within the SBC.”
Greear, who is currently serving an unexpected third term as president of the convention because of the coronavirus pandemic, purposefully has made leadership diversity a priority. He wanted the people who sit on Southern Baptist boards to better reflect the makeup of the convention. Only 32% of his first-year appointments were white men, he said.
The denomination remains overwhelmingly white — 85% according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study — but Greear said people of color are pastors at nearly 20% of Southern Baptist churches and planted 63% of new churches.
“Our leaders should reflect the diversity of our communities and proclaim the diversity of God’s kingdom,” Greear said. “But the real solution to racism runs deeper. The Gospel contains the power to eradicate racism, by teaching that all people belong to a common race — the human race; are plagued by a common problem — sin; and are saved by a common hope — the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
Calls for symbols of the Confederacy to come down
In addition to increasing diversity in leadership, some Southern Baptists also want the convention and its entities to reconsider how they honor their early slave-holding leaders.
While calls for the removal of Confederate symbols intensified in communities across the U.S., Greear pushed for the convention to retire one of its own — the Broadus gavel.
It was one part of Greear’s efforts to bring racial equality issues back to the forefront after George Floyd’s death. Greear also declared in his online presidential address in June that Black lives do matter, but he does not support the Black Lives Matter organization founded in 2013.
Used by the convention president while presiding over the denomination’s annual meetings, the gavel is named for John A. Broadus, the slave-holding, Confederacy-supporting second president of the convention’s flagship school, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Greear suggested the Broadus gavel be returned for good to the display cases in the executive committee’s Nashville offices, saying in a column published in the Baptist Press that it would send a “symbolic yet tangible message that we are a convention of all people, made in the image of God, and who matter deeply to God.”
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a Black senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Texas, also wants Broadus Chapel at the Southern seminary renamed and the other honorary references to its slave-holding founders. He suggests renaming the chapel for the Rev. T. Vaughn Walker, the first African American to become a full professor at the seminary.
“How do you invite Black people to sit in a chapel that is named after a blatant racist?” McKissic said. “The world is ahead of us. The world recognizes the hypocrisy of the fallacy here. The world wants to remove all those vestiges of racism and white supremacy construct.”
The seminary released a report in 2018 detailing the racism in its history. Seminary President the Rev. Al Mohler has said he does not plan to remove the names.
But Mohler said he will do what he can to make sure the name of Joseph Brown, the Confederate governor of Georgia who gave money to the seminary, is no longer used in an honorary fashion.
“There would be no school and none of those buildings would exist but for the commitment of those original faculty members. That story not only comes with commemoration and glory, but also with a burden — a burden to tell the truth,” Mohler, who is white, said in a June 29 statement on his website. “Maybe part of God’s judgment through history comes down to just how difficult these stories can be. But we must tell them.”
In addition to owning up to its past, the church, Floyd said, also has a role to play in shaping what is to come.
“We must resolve that the sin of racism will stop now and not be forwarded to generations in the future,” Floyd said. “You cannot just hope something goes away and it happens. Nor can you sit passively in the church pew and believe it is enough. Passivity has never been and will never be a prescription for healing. The church must answer this moment in America.”