NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Race-related tensions within the Southern Baptist Convention are high ahead of a national meeting next week. The election of a new president of the SBC and the debate over the concept of systemic racism may prove essential for some black pastors as they decide to stay in the denomination or leave.

It could be a watershed moment for America’s largest Protestant denomination. The SBC was founded before the Civil War as an advocate for slavery, and it wasn’t until 1995 that it officially apologized for that legacy – but since 2000 its black membership has grown as white limbs decrease.

Over the past year, however, several black pastors have left the SBC, frustrated by what they see as racial callousness within its predominantly white leadership.

Depending on the outcome of the Nashville meeting, the exodus could swell – or ease. Many black pastors are comfortable with the conservative theology of the SBC and grateful for the financial support, but do not want it to embark on conservative national politics or distance itself from the quest for racial justice.

Reverend Nate Bishop of Forest Baptist Church near Louisville, Ky., Said some in his black congregation want to leave the SBC while others want to stay, and he intends to assess “the tenor and tone. “deliberations in Nashville to guide his decisions.

“There’s a bigger question going – will there even be an SBC in the next five, 10, 15 years?” said the bishop. “There will be a distancing from this national organization. The only way forward will be to reject the fear campaign that is being projected day by day. “

One of the SBC’s most prominent black pastors, Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said his church would quit the SBC if one of the two main Conservative candidates won the presidency: Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, or Mike Stone, a pastor from Blackshear, Georgia, whose main supporters see Mohler as insufficiently conservative.

The two “made statements that Black Baptists would find it anathema, regarding race issues and politics,” McKissic said by email. “I couldn’t proudly call myself a Southern Baptist if one of them wins.”

He also criticized them for supporting strict restrictions on women’s roles in the church, saying he and many other black pastors favored women serving as assistant pastors or in other meaningful roles.

McKissic is supporting a third candidate, White Pastor Ed Litton of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama. Litton will be appointed by Fred Luter, a New Orleans-based pastor who in 2012 became the first and so far the only black president of the SBC.

A crucial dividing line in the presidential election and for the SBC as a whole is the issue of critical race theory, a term used to describe critiques of systemic racism.

Last year, Mohler and the five other SBC seminary presidents, all white, declared critical race theory “incompatible with” scriptural-based SBC theology.

the declaration created friction far beyond SBC academia, particularly due to the lack of black involvement in its writing. But Mohler did not budge from his repudiation of critical race theory, and Stone harshly condemned the concept.

A resolution endorsed by Stone and several of his key allies, which will be proposed at the meeting, denounces critical race theory as “rooted in neo-Marxist and postmodern worldviews.” Stone’s allies will also seek to overturn a 2019 resolution suggesting that Critical Race Theory might be useful as an analytical tool.

McKissic said approval of such measures could be another trigger for his exit.

Last December, he, Litton and Luter were among the co-signers of a declaration by a multi-ethnic group of Southern Baptists claiming that systemic racial injustice is a reality.

“Some recent events have left many brothers and sisters of color feeling betrayed and wondering if the SBC is committed to racial reconciliation,” the statement said.

Relatively few of the SBC’s remaining black pastors echoed McKissic’s explicit threats to leave.

Luter, as part of a recent video series titled “Why am I staying” said the sometimes hostile environment within the SBC made it all the more important for black pastors to stay and seek improvements. Rev. Marshal Ausberry, who heads the SBC Association of Black Churches, urged respectful dialogue to resolve race-related disputes.

Charles Jones, pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Clute, Texas, chose to keep his small black congregation in the affiliated Southern Baptists’ Texas – the Baptist General Convention of Texas – in part because of the possibility for his church to support the missionary. programs.

Other churches have benefited from SBC links for things like funding the construction of a new building or the certification programs of the convention ministry.

Jones sees the debate on critical race theory as a distraction that allows people to avoid serious discussions of social inequality.

“They don’t want to talk about schools, why ghettos are ghettos,” Jones said. “We are debating theory after theory, and nothing gets done.”

The debate erupted last year as the SBC released statistics showing that African Americans have been a primary source of growth within the denomination since 2000, even as the number of whites has steadily declined.

In 2018, the SBC had approximately 907,000 African American members out of a total of 14.8 million members, and approximately 3,900 predominantly Black congregations out of approximately 51,500.

The participation of Asian and Hispanic Americans has also increased, prompting Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the SBC executive committee, to hail America’s diversity as “an incredible opportunity” for future growth.

The statistical report did not say how many African American congregations are doubly aligned with historically black Baptist denominations. As autonomous entities, Baptist churches can choose which groups to join and decide how much or how little to participate and give.

Rev. Joel Bowman Sr., senior pastor at Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, said his African-American church maintains ties with Southern Baptists at the state and local level, but plans to sever ties. nominal links with the national convention.

“For me, the SBC is currently not a safe place for African Americans and other people of color,” he said. “There are probably a number of churches and pastors who would leave the SBC, but because they are so financially tied to the denomination, they are probably slower to leave.”

Another Louisville pastor, Deryk Hayes of St. Paul Baptist Church @ Shively Heights, retired from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary this year. He cited a lack of respect for the black church, including a decision to keep the names of its slave founders on some seminary buildings.

“From my perspective, these men are not heroic,” said Hayes. “They practiced heresy.”

Hayes said many black pastors share the theological conservatism of their white counterparts, but not their politics.

“The conservative resurgence is good if it really is biblical inerrancy,” he said. “I think it’s about the privilege of white men and the power of white men.”

John Onwuchekwa, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, was a rising star of the SBC before breaking up with her last year. Among his reasons: he didn’t want to be exemplified by other black ministers to prove that the SBC would be a good place for them.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there are good people in the SBC,” Onwuchekwa said. But when opportunities have presented themselves to make major improvements in race relations, “instead they take moderate measures not to offend the grassroots.”

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Smith reported from Pittsburgh and Crary from Carbondale, Colorado.

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The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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