‘Racism should be our least problem’
A conversation on race in the Southern Baptist Convention
February 1st, 2021 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments
The TEXAN asked current SBTC vice president Richard Lewis, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Copperas Cove, and former SBTC president Terry Turner, pastor of Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church, to talk with us about how Black and white Southern Baptists can have greater unity and common purpose. Much of the virtual conversation is included here.
TEXAN: How would you characterize relationships between Black and white Southern Baptists today?
Lewis: Even though we try, in certain areas there is a lack of day-to-day relationships—of just being able to connect with each other. [In] Killeen, there is not a sense of camaraderie. We started a couple things before the pandemic. And I think it was working well, just making sure that we [knew] each other outside of church settings, because we can come and worship together for different situations, but we really don’t have that personal connection, one with another as the body of Christ, as the members do. We may have relationships with other pastors, but our churches don’t have that kind of relationship.
Turner: I’ve noticed over the years, relationships are not something that just come automatically, and especially between African Americans and Anglos, and really any other race of people, because we come out of our cultures. And so, crossing over the racial barriers to develop relationships requires working on it. You’ve got to really, really commit yourself to say, I’m going to befriend individuals of different races.
What I’ve found [as] the author of [the] “Look Like Heaven” [initiative] in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, along with Dr. Richards and the committee at that time, we were asking pastors and churches to come together to get to know one another because we weren’t doing that. One of the things we really pressed was, when you come together, don’t expect an African American to come in and act like he’s an Anglo brother. Accept him for who he is, and vice versa. We’ve been doing this now, since 2013 or 2014. I don’t know that it’s worked very well. I think some pastors have tried, while other pastors haven’t tried, didn’t want to try. It becomes a heart issue. We’ve got to, as the SBTC and as the SBC, understand that we have to work on being one with people of other ethnicities. And I’d like to see that really develop into a national movement ….
Lewis: That has to be a two-way street. What I’ve recognized is that sometimes, even here where we’ve made the effort to reach across the street … when it is time for that to be reciprocated, it’s not done. It’s easy for me to come to you and have fellowship at your house. But when it’s time for you to come to my house, and have that kind of relationship, then it doesn’t happen. I may not understand my Anglo brother’s culture, but I’m going to come and be a part of whatever he’s doing.
Turner: I have, over the years, developed a mind within our church, where we invite people of all ethnicities to come into our pulpit, to worship and to preach. And I ask them to bring their churches with them so our churches can fellowship. The people who come and worship are the same people who, outside of the church, have relationship. If a brother is sick, and he’s having surgery, I love to get that call, and to be able to pray for a brother of a different ethnicity. When we meet at the convention, I have certain brothers of other races, we’re going to have lunch together, we’re going to do these things together. That’s what has to develop. It has to be not only just inside the church, but we’ve got to come outside of the church and learn to do some things together as well as community projects in advancing the kingdom.
Lewis: We started a thing in Copperas Cove where I pastor, five of us that are part of the SBTC would rotate from church to church and have that fellowship each fifth Sunday. The pandemic put a stop to that for a while. And one thing that I purpose to do is to have lunch with brothers here. I’ll call them and say, “Hey, man, let’s have lunch, let’s go to Applebee’s.” I make sure our wives are invited to the fellowship, because that begins to develop relationships that begin to let you know me as a human being, and I can see you as a human being. [Otherwise], we’re totally missing it because you never get to understand me. You see me as the brother that’s proclaiming the gospel. The problem is, what do we do [next]? I shared this with one of our preachers. I say, “Pastor, the police chief doesn’t go to my church. The fire marshal doesn’t go to my church. He goes to yours.” And so when you and I are talking, and we begin to talk about issues, you have a direct line to the police chief. I do not. But if I’m speaking with you, then you understand where my heart is and where it relates to our culture and our people.
Turner: I can appreciate that. That camaraderie of having dinner together, sitting down supping together. It’s a very important part of worship, being invited into homes, and I’ve had a few brothers who’ve done that with me, and I can really appreciate the fact that they opened their doors and invited me to their dinner table. And that, I think is important, and they were pastors within the SBTC.
But on the other hand, when we look at our convention, and what [the SBC] represents, what Brother Richard and I are talking about is probably rare. The convention, as a whole right now, is under tremendous strain as to these relationships. The race issue is front and center. And it’s really become detrimental to African-American churches and pastors who are within the convention. It’s killing the relationship.
I think we all love the Cooperative Program, but the mind of the convention, to tie in what we have considered today to be white nationalism and white supremacy, we just don’t understand. We’re hurt by it. We are confused by how brothers that we look at as a part of our convention can love the convention, and say they love us, while at the same time not be as strong against racism as they are against abortion. That is what is really hurting the relationship within the convention today. We’re against abortion; we’re against same-sex marriages. Those of us who are part of the SBTC, we have like theology. But one thing that rests higher than all the others, is how our convention handles and deals with racism.
Lewis: [Agreeing] … I’ve had Anglo brothers ask me this question, “Why do Blacks call all whites racists?” [I answer that] we don’t classify all Anglo brothers as racists. But the problem is, when you see racist things, you don’t speak out. We’ve got to have a voice. And I do agree with you. I hate abortions. I hate same sex-marriages. But you’ve got to [understand] also the fact that we can’t sit by and watch things done. and we know they’re not right. Dr. King said it’s not my enemies that I’m concerned about. It’s my friends that are silent when these things are going on.
As the convention, we can’t sit by and watch these things take place without actually saying something … and not just giving a cookie-cutter statement—but actually having a statement that has heart, that has substance, as hard as we fight against abortion. Because racism doesn’t only hurt me as a black person, it hurts all of us because we can’t come together. We can’t move forward.
Turner: The other side of that is, we do have some of our brothers in the [SBC] who do speak out. I don’t want it to ever seem like the convention is not making progress. I joined the convention over 28 years ago. I’ve seen a lot happen with the race relationship in those 28 years. I’ve seen a [Black] president elected to the SBC. I see now we have a [Black] chairman of our SBC Executive Committee this year. I’ve seen our convention come together time and time again. In 1939, I didn’t see that [first SBC apology for slavery and lynching]. We did it again in ’95 [SBC resolution against racism]. We came back in 2016 and 2017 and we apologized again, and we condemned the Confederate flag. We make all of these statements, which are good, but without structured change, it really doesn’t say a whole lot.
Our SBTC executive director, Dr. Jim Richards, is one who will speak out on race issues. He makes his thoughts known. He condemns every situation he sees when it’s wrong and I appreciate him making those statements. But when it comes down to what we really look like in our [SBTC] leadership—sure, I’ve served as president, Richard is vice president this year, Dante Wright has served as vice president, Tony Mathews has served as vice president. But is our convention strong enough to have an African American in leadership and our churches support it? I think that’s where the real issue always is.
It’s a hard issue because Richard and I, we follow the convention and we follow people who don’t look like us simply because we believe in what the convention is about and what the convention does. Would our white brothers who have the same southern frame of mind who are a part of our convention do the same? Dr. Richards is retiring this year. If there were an African American to replace Dr. Richards, what would happen to our convention?
How do we get to the heart issue of it? … We’ve got to develop a system of thinking for how we are going to handle racism, and we have not done that in any of our [state Baptist] conventions that I know of. …I know we have one state convention that has an African-American [executive director] and that’s Maryland/Delaware … Kevin Smith. He’s doing a great job. They accept him in Delaware, but I don’t know [if that] would happen in Texas. I hope it would.
TEXAN: What should the Southern Baptist Convention do to put feet to the resolutions or pronouncements we’ve made in the past?
Lewis: When I came to the Southern Baptist Convention, it was because of Kevin Smith. Kevin and I grew up in a Sovereign Grace flavor of church and Kevin introduced me to E.W. McCall. To have the relationship with E.W. and to have him speak in such glowing words about the convention, him coming from California and then coming to Texas, and being part of Dr. Richards embracing him and giving him the liberties to do the things that he did, I think that goes back to what Dr. Turner has said.
We’ve got to have men in positions that speak to and that the convention supports and stands with … and understands that their leadership is valid and that who they are is valid. ... I think that has to happen. Even if we don’t select an African American to follow Dr. Richards, that should be someone that is seriously considered and that it ought to be known among the brethren that this person is not being considered as a token, but being considered seriously in the leadership of the SBTC. Those are things that I think will help us along the way.
Turner: [Referring to recent controversy among the National African American Fellowship and SBC seminary presidents*** over the place of CRT/I**] That argument … finds its real teeth in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. I think when it comes to the BF&M 2000, it was written in a time when the issue on the table had nothing to do with racism. When it [was] developed, it had everything to do with liberalism within our convention and the convention being reestablished as a conservative convention. So now, we are dealing with something that the Baptist Faith & Message is silent on.
I understand they had a meeting the other day where the seminary council rejected CRT/I. I don’t believe in all the tenets of CRT/I, but the tenet that I do believe in is that we ought to have racial equality taught within our seminaries. … I think that’s a part of our problem right there, is that most [of] our white brothers don’t understand, truly know African-American history and the plight that the African American has had to go through. And neither do they want to be taught because it is a difficult history, a dark history; it really is a despondent history—but it’s our history. We can’t get away from it as African Americans, but white Americans tend to not want to deal with it. None of us are guilty of our history but we are those who inherited our history. We’ve got to live up to who we are and what has happened in the past to us.
I believe that we have come to a day where we need to start to make amendments to our BF&M 2000 so that it reflects where we are today. The seminary presidents have walked in and had a great conversation with the African American Fellowship and say we have no room for movement because we are bound confessionally to the Baptist Faith & Message and walk out without anything structurally happening. That has to change. If we want our convention to be what it can be racially, we’ve got to make some changes in its confession. I know that’s a can of worms, but racism is a can of worms. If we don’t deal with it, then you’re going to see massive exits.
There may be some people who don’t care whether all the African Americans leave the convention—and I say all—never is all—all is never—but you’re going to have a lot who are going to find themselves disheartened and begin to exit because they have no footing within the convention. All of America is making the change. Why is it that conservative-minded people who think like me always have to be the last ones to come around to racism? Why can’t we be first? We are conservative. We believe in the Bible. We love the Bible. We love the Lord. We say we love our brothers as Christ has commanded that we love one another. Why not be in the forefront? We’ve given that issue to the liberals, instead of holding on to it for ourselves and making it who we are.
Lewis: When we use terminology it sometimes makes it impossible for us to move because we hear the term “conservative,” and we don’t apply that to our theology. We apply that to our politics. … [W]ithin the church, I’m as conservative as I can possibly be, as it relates to my theology. And, if you ask [if] I am conservative politically, that may mean something different ….
There are some things that are happening politically on the liberal side that I don’t agree with, but there are some things that are happening on the conservative side politically that I don’t agree with. If our message is Jesus Christ and him crucified and resurrected on the third morning, then I stand with you and I move forward with you. Information is powerful. Information is key. What we have to do is make sure the right information is being put out to those pastors.
Sometimes when we use certain terminology, we ask, “Are we talking politics or are we talking theology?” We’ve got to put some teeth into the definition of words that we’re using. What does that mean? … We do need to have some amendments to the 2000 statement of faith. There are some issues that we must address. We’ve got to.
Turner: I can see how that will help us to redefine conservative views versus liberal views by putting some biblical structure—for African Americans, that is very important to what we believe conservatively. … I’m talking about conservatism from a biblical standpoint always, never from a political standpoint. Politics should never control the church, and it should never control the world. I believe that godliness ought to control politics. That, I do believe. Nelson Mandela made it very, very plain—fools multiply when the wise are silent. I’m finding today that our foolishness is continuing to multiply on the race issue while the wise within the church are being silent on it. I thank God for those who are in leadership who are speaking out. We’ve got to take it a step forward and put some rules in our structure from our doctrinal and our creedal beliefs.
TEXAN: What do you see in the Southern Baptist Convention today, at the end of a pretty hard year, that gives you hope?
Lewis: The first thing for me is that we’re talking. When you cut off communication you have no way of becoming better. The fact that we have men in local communities that are talking to one another, I believe that this conversation will open up conversations. … As long as we can communicate with one another, I believe that we can make necessary changes. I’ve got to come to the table honestly. I can’t have an agenda. I can’t believe that when I’m having an honest conversation with you that it’s not honest, that there’s a hidden agenda [about race]. Until we are able to have an honest conversation about how we come to the table, this thing is going to always be under the table.
Turner: … I think the Cooperative Program is the best thing going in our world today when it comes to the kingdom of God and I can see how the Cooperative Program continues to be a blessing to everybody, to every ethnicity, how it started our church many, many years ago. We were a church plant and we were planted to start an African-American fellowship because the convention wanted to be able to reach into the African-American community and develop churches and to be able to expand its outreach into the African-American community. White pastors just weren’t able to do that.
What we’re dealing with today is that the Cooperative Program, I believe, is going to continue to sponsor pastors regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their outreach, whether they’re trying to reach into the African-American community or the Asian community or the Hispanic community and fund those churches … to incorporate the gospel into those communities. It’s important for me to see the CP at work.
One thing that would be very beneficial is for the convention to establish a human resources society just for race relationships. … It can be the voice. Really, the ERLC was established for that …. Unless the ERLC or some board can be established for that particular purpose, where powerful pastors who don’t understand race relationships have no commitment to it, cannot control the entity that is over it, we’ll continue to have problems. I think in the future that we’re going to come to that reality.
Lewis: A lot of times, and especially with young Black pastors coming into the convention, they’re not aware of all the entities that are available to them and the programs that are there. So, they don’t reach out to those programs because they don’t know they exist because they don’t have a voice in those programs. What’s available to our congregation? How does it help us in our communities?
One of the things that’s being asked is, “Why are we in the Southern Baptist Convention? Can you tell me why?” When I explain the differences, their face lights up a lot of times and they say, “Oh, I get it now.” But when you don’t know what’s available, you don’t know how to use [resources].
[To Turner] I hear your Southern Baptist roots coming through. You were a church plant. You were a part of that organization. But, what about that guy that’s coming in that has a congregation and he has to get his congregation entangled with the convention? My church loved Kevin Smith, and he had preached at my church, and E.W. McCall was easy to come, and Richard Taylor was easy to come. [My church] saw Black faces that were part of the convention. I was able to bring in Dr. Richards and other white brothers like Bart McDonald that were a part of what we were doing and they preached, but they had a relationship with us.
One of the things that you have convicted me of is to learn more of what the convention has to offer. I can’t just take what my limited knowledge is and become more exposed to it. I’ve got to be able to speak to other brothers that are like me that are asking those questions.
Turner: [Discussing the difficulty of presenting the Cooperative Program to Black pastors who may feel the SBC is “all-Anglo” and they are unwelcome.] Consequently, getting them to the table has been one of the major issues that we’ve had to deal with in the past. The very things you’ve said, we’ve tried to do over the years and we’ve actually promoted it quite a bit for educational purposes and the very people you’ve actually named, we’ve gone around and we’ve talked to different associations and different pastors….
And, at every convention for years we would have our African American Fellowship and we would introduce the things to the fellowship that the convention was actually doing with the CP, but that … cloud, was always there. I think the only way to move that cloud is to develop the frame of mind that the convention has front and center an understanding of race relationships, that it is working through some entity … to make the changes that need to be made. I think that if there’s an entity that is started just for that—for the purpose of race relationships and is funded for that purpose—we get that cloud removed.
We can get our brothers at the table. They’re saying now to us, “Why don’t you just leave?”
And, I’m saying to them, “I’m invested. I knew what I was joining when I became a part of the Southern Baptist Convention and I’m invested to stay here until the change comes or until the Lord calls me home.”
Lewis: That’s things we may need to have at the EQUIP Conference. If we’re equipping brothers to be better, that may be part of what we need to do. Say hey, this is here for you, this is for senior pastors. Guys, we need to have you in here, and we need to have a conversation. The bottom line is, either you’re in or you’re out. If you’re in, then get in here and make a difference.
Turner: We see baptisms declining and we see cooperative giving plummeting and I think we’ve got to be, as Christ said, as wise as a serpent and as humble as a dove. The way I’ve always looked at that passage is, a serpent knows when to strike, and he knows when to run. And yet, at the same time, we have to be as harmless as a dove, even when we strike, that we make the difference. Every time I hear somebody say that Southern Baptists are racist, it just breaks my heart, because I’ve been part of this convention for so long, and I love it. It’s very important to me that it’s successful. I know there are some who don’t care as long as they stay in power, as long as they stay in control.
Lewis: The bottom line is … racism should be our least problem with all the sin problems that we’re facing. Racism should not be at the top of the list. If we say we are who God has called us to be, then racism should not be an issue that we have to talk about in church.
TEXAN: Give us a final word.
Turner: I’ve been so burdened by everything that’s been going on in our country, in our world. I’ve been so confused why we are not doing better. … [May] our pastors as well as our congregation within our SBTC … understand the importance of the commandment Christ has given to us that we love our neighbor even as we love ourselves, which is the second and greatest commandment. Just being part of the convention has been very rewarding for me. I don’t know where else I would have been able to do what I’ve been able to do for the kingdom other than in Southern Baptist life. I look forward to what God is going to do in the future.
I know that so many of us are tied to the politics of today more than we are tied to Christ. I think that’s where we really have to revive ourselves. Politics has always been detrimental to the Christian. It’s always been detrimental to faith because it will take the place of that which is most important. There’s going to be some losses in Christendom because we got so tied to politics and not staying steadfast to the Word of God. We see our pastors being political. We see our convention heads being political, and we’ve got to remember right is right and wrong is wrong.
And we stand for what is right because the Bible teaches us what is right. And when we stand on the Word of God, we can resolve a whole lot of our issues. I suggest we get back to the Bible and do what the Bible tells us to do.
Lewis: If our commandment is to go make disciples and to teach them whatsoever he has taught us, then we can’t get caught up in being anything other than being godly. Our responsibility is to make men and women look like Christ. The Scripture says, let us follow after Paul as he followed after Christ. How can people follow after us, to Christ, if we’re leading them to a political agenda? Our agenda has to be to win souls for Christ….
At the end of the day, my responsibility is not to make a good Republican, a good Democrat, but to make a Christian. Are you God-like? Are you living according to what the Word of God says? God says there is really only one way to heaven and that is through his beloved Son Jesus Christ. That has to be our message. The gospel is the most important message that we have to offer, and if we’re not offering the gospel, then we’re missing the mark.