Race Leads the Agenda as Southern Baptists Gather in St. Louis

Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 15, 2016

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Only this time, the thousands of Southern Baptists gathering in downtown St. Louis this week are coming off a series of wake-up calls.

Baptisms–their gold standard–are the lowest in decades.

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“Since all human beings are made in the image of God, this attack against gay Americans in Orlando is an attack on each of us,” the Rev. Ronnie Floyd told thousands of people Tuesday at America’s Center. “As followers of Jesus Christ, we stand against any form of bigotry, hatred or violence against our nation.”

In his final address as convention president, Floyd, of Arkansas, spoke at length about race in an attempt to rally political candidates and church leaders to face hard truths about the country and individual communities.

“We are known more for being the ‘Divided States of America’ than for being the United States of America,” he said, adding: “Regardless of the color of one’s skin, God has put his divine imprint on each one of us. Where has this conversation been in our national political races for the highest office of the land? The silence of both parties has been deafening. This cannot be. Racism is a major sin and stronghold in America.”

He also leveled the message directly at the Southern Baptist Convention, largely made up of rural congregations of less than 100 people in the South.

“We are not black churches,” he said. “We are not white churches. We are not Latino churches. We are not Asian churches. We are the church of Jesus Christ.”

That call for racial unity was followed by passage of a resolution that calls on Christians to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag.

Earlier, a diverse mix of faith leaders hosted a panel discussion on race.

Kenny Petty, pastor of the Gate Church in University City, spoke about Ferguson.

He said the shooting of Michael Brown exposed a “historical, societal infection,” like the incidents in Charleston and Florida. “It exposed a wound, and that wound opened up and it reeked,” he said. “We had a pretty serious situation in our streets . . . there has been some healing, but there is a long way to go.”

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Gregg Matte, senior pastor at Houston’s First Baptist Church, said he insisted on having a diverse groups of pastors for its five campuses.

”We want our leadership to look like the city of Houston,” he said.

Larry Shuler, 67, listened to the president’s address and subsequent panel discussion from near the back row of the cavernous convention hall. An associate pastor, he recalled working in East Texas.

“They didn’t talk about racism, they just practiced it,” he said. “If you don’t talk about it, it’s not going to change. Throwing rocks doesn’t help a bit, it only increases anger.”

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And while membership at white churches is decreasing, it is on the rise at churches identified as predominantly “non-Anglo.”

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