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Juneteenth and the newly named Great Commission Baptists

June 20, 2012

No, the wounded man thought, Oh no!  Get back to that; back to a bunch of old-fashioned Negroes celebrating an illusion of emancipation, and getting it mixed up with the Resurrection, minstrel shows and vaudeville routines?  Back to that tent in the clearing surrounded by trees, that bowl-shaped impression in the earth beneath the pines? . . .  Lord, it hurts.  Lordless and without loyalty, it hurts.  Wordless, it hurts.  Here and especially here.  Still I see it after all the roving years and flickering scenes:  Twin lecterns on opposite ends of the rostrum, behind one of which I stood on a wide box, leaning forward to grasp the lectern’s edge.  Back.  Daddy Hickman at the other.  Back to the first day of that week of celebration.  Juneteenth.  Hot, dusty.  Hot with faces shining with sweat and the hair of the young dudes metallic with grease and straightening irons.  Back to that?

. . . . And him beginning:
On this God-given day, brothers and sisters, when we have come together to praise God and celebrate our oneness, our slipping off the chains, let’s us begin this week of worship by taking a look at the ledger. Let us, on this day of deliverance, take a look at the figures writ on our bodies and on the living tablet of our heart. The Hebrew children have their Passover so that they can keep their history alive in their memories — so let us take one more page from their book and, on this great day of deliverance, on this day of emancipation, let’s us tell ourselves our story.
Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison

History will show that the United States of America’s largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptists, at their Convention of 2012, elected their first African-American president, on Juneteenth.  Yesterday, then, there were lots of news reports, a few critical of the language and the legacy, of the celebrations of the USA’s “Emancipation Day.”

And, then, there are the reports how in New Orleans, the “Rev. Fred Luter Jr. wiped away tears Tuesday.”

The report in my local newspaper runs further, like this:

“I’m absolutely floored,” Luter said at a news conference later. “This is a moment I will never forget. I thank God for the confidence Southern Baptists are putting in me.”

Many called it a watershed moment for the Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845 in a split with northern Baptists over slavery.

Luter, 55, pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, said he would work hard to make sure his election is not just a symbolic act to improve the Southern Baptist image.

“This is a very historic moment,” Luter said. “The Southern Baptist Convention was founded over slavery. And now they’ve elected an African-American president. We’ve all done things in the past that we’ve regretted. I’ve done things I’ve regretted.

“To God be the glory, for the great things he has done. God bless you,” an emotional Luter said.

Outgoing President Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church near Atlanta, put his arm on Luter’s shoulder and prayed, “We thank you for this historic moment. As we think about our beginnings and how far we’ve come, we thank you for Fred Luter, who will carry this mantle of leadership beginning Wednesday night.”

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Arlington’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation, said, “This is a major symbolic step in the right direction.”

“We’re very excited and thankful for this major symbolic step, but it must be followed by substantial action in hiring African-Americans as entity heads. That’s when real progress will be made,” he said.

Frank Page, a former pastor of Fort Worth’s Gambrell Street Baptist Church who is now CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Luter’s election was much more than symbolic. It’s a sign, he said, that Baptists are moving ahead with real diversity.

“I can’t think of a Baptist seminary that doesn’t have an African-American professor,” he said. There are 10,000 Southern Baptist churches whose members are predominantly ethnic minorities, he said.

Page said he is working with African-American, Hispanic and Asian advisory groups to “deepen their involvement in every aspect of Southern Baptist life.”

The Rev. Terry Turner, an African-American pastor from Mesquite who is president of the Southern Baptists of Texas, one of two Baptist state conventions, said Luter’s election was a “great step” many had long awaited.

“Any time you have ethnics in leadership, it changes the face of the denomination,” he said.

Luter said that in the last 25 years he has seen the denomination purposely work to eliminate its racist image, including an action at its 1995 national convention apologizing for its racist heritage.

There is significance for Juneteenth 2012.  There is significance for the Southern Baptists too.   But I haven’t heard or yet read of any reports of the significance of this elective, restorative, denomination-emancipating act on Juneteenth.  Have you?

What follows Juneteeth and this story of Southern Baptists electing a president for the first time who is African American is the somewhat contested “53 percent of the 4,800 ballots cast at the convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans” majority decision to change the name of the group from “Southern Baptist” to the somewhat optional “Great Commission Baptist.”  One report goes on to stress as a primary factor for the decision the ugly history of the domination’s foundation because of race-based slavery:

The passage marks another step in the predominately white Christian denomination’s efforts to become more diverse and inclusive. . . .

Leaders of ethnic Southern Baptist congregations and churches outside the South said it would be helpful to have a different way of describing themselves in order to have broader appeal.

Some said the convention’s ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 posed a barrier for growth. Southern Baptists split from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over slave ownership.

The African American pastor Fred Luter Jr. was not President of the Southern Baptist Convention for even a full day, on Juneteenth.  On that same Juneteenth, later in the day, he became the first president ever of the Great Commission Baptists, given the narrow vote to adopt this new name.  (In an earlier post, or at least in the conversation of comments following it, I’d alluded to the most recent proposal for this name change.)

The day after Juneteenth 2012, the question is how far the Great Commission Baptists with their new leadership can go.  One report starts this way:  “A day after electing their first African-American president, Southern Baptists were considering a resolution Wednesday opposing the idea that gay rights are the same as civil rights.”

The day after Juneteenth, the day after emancipation day, we recall, then, how not too long ago one Keith Boykin, then President of the National Black Justice Coalition, a black gay and lesbian civil rights group, asserted that some of the words Ralph Ellison wrote “still apply to blacks who are gay.”  Boykin repeated what Ellison had written, once upon a time, of African Americans in general:  “I am an invisible man. . . .  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . .  When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed everything and anything, except me.”

And so, the political and religious and literary United States of America lurches forward as we look backwards.


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