Presidents of Black, White Baptist Groups Discuss Race, History and Reconciliation

(Eleanor Taylor)
(Eleanor Taylor)

With the protests in Ferguson, Mo., the Black Lives Matter movement and the massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., on their minds, the presidents of the nation’s two major Baptist groups — one predominantly white, one predominantly black — decided it was time for a bold gesture. The Southern Baptist Convention, founded by slaveholders and their supporters before the Civil War, is now the nation’s second-largest Christian denomination after the Roman Catholic Church. Black Baptists formed their own churches and in 1880 founded what eventually became the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.

Late last year, the leaders each invited 10 of their pastors to join in a public conversation on racial reconciliation in Jackson, Miss. The Rev. Dr. Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Rev. Dr. Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., visited The New York Times recently to discuss the Jackson meeting, and the goals behind it. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Q. What was it like being in that room?

YOUNG For me personally, it was almost euphoric. Literally to be in that room dealing with that particular issue in light of my own personal history and the history of Mississippi, and Southern Baptist history. That moment was filled with hope and a tremendous sense of possibility.

Q. You’ve told me that you were born on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta and grew up experiencing racism. Did you tell the Southern Baptists about those experiences?

YOUNG In the little town I grew up in, Lamont, just north of Greenville, there were three stores, and I remember distinctly once, we went into one store and there was an elderly man there. They had a cooler where you got the sodas and took them to the counter. The man went and picked up a Coke and went to the counter, and the person behind the counter refused to sell him the Coke because it was a white man’s drink. He had to put it back in the cooler.

Q. Reverend Floyd, why did you, as a white Southern Baptist, want to sit down with African-American Baptists?

FLOYD I had been deeply grieved by what I had seen happening in this country, ever since the events of Ferguson. And then the Charleston shooting, which broke our hearts. The Southern Baptist Convention has 51,094 churches, and out of that, 10,300 of them are nonwhite churches, so we really want deeply to move forward in reaching multiethnic people, nonwhite people.

Q. Is that part of the motivation for doing this racial reconciliation effort, that you’re just trying to grow your own denomination?

FLOYD It’s not our motive. We believe that God is sovereign over all affairs, and God miraculously led us together. I wrote an article helped by several nonwhite leaders in our denomination, along with a couple of guys that look like me, and it was a response to the Ferguson issue. And it just caught lots of fire, in a good way. It ended up being featured in an African-American magazine, and they sent me a copy of it. And there’s Jerry Young on the front cover, bigger than Dallas. Then they got my picture down here in a little thing, talking about me speaking on racism. And I just got to tell you, that’s one of the greatest pictures I’ve ever had. And I mean that. Because [turning to Mr. Young] I love you and I didn’t even know you. But that day when I got that magazine I wrote you a congratulatory letter, and from that moment the Lord put us together.

YOUNG I am convinced that if we don’t get this racism issue right in the church, I don’t think there’s any way we can do it in the culture. The church has a checkered past, even now, with racism, no question. And that’s not just white racism. It’s racism period.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Laurie Goodstein

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