#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

If the Rev. Dennis Kim were elected at the group’s annual meeting Tuesday, it could send a strong message about the Nashville, Tennessee-based denomination’s commitment to ethnic and geographic diversity. But even though the group’s other top posts remain almost exclusively held by whites, some members — including some of Kim’s supporters — are uncomfortable with the idea of making a conscious effort to diversify the leadership.

The vote involving Kim, of Silver Spring, Maryland, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, of northwest Arkansas, and at least one other white candidate comes at a time when the convention is struggling to turn around a trend of declining church membership, attendance and baptisms.

The only problem: the AP seemed to find the ethnic angle more relevant than those interviewed, including Kim’s supporters:

Texas pastor Dwight McKissic, who will nominate Kim at the annual meeting Tuesday, says Kim is simply the best man for the job. “Everything about him represents what the Southern Baptists need to impact the nations of the world with the gospel of the kingdom,” he said.

The story doesn’t back up the claim that Kim’s election would send “a strong message” or quote anyone suggesting it. A rewrite of Monday’s report — presumably an early-morning skeleton for updates as the convention votes today — is more straightforward.

The latest AP story hints at other possible headlines that could emerge:

The convention does not announce in advance what resolutions it will consider at its annual meeting, but recent controversies include the admission of a Muslim student to a Southern Baptist seminary and the decision of one Southern Baptist church to stop preaching that homosexuality is immoral.

Religion News Service reported last month on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitting a Muslim to one of its doctoral programs. A Pew Research Center report (co-written by Tim Townsend) provides background on the congregation that changed its position on homosexuality.

Among other advances on the convention, RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt has a piece asking if the SBC can “thrive” in the 21st century. RNS national correspondent Cathy Grossman raised the stakes a bit more and wondered if it can “survive”:

Meanwhile, for a really strange perspective, check out this newsy opinion/analysis piece by a Boston Globe writer. Here’s the headline:

New England Baptists drop ‘Southern,’ keep the faith

The writer seems to think it’s extremely newsworthy that New England churches aren’t including “Southern Baptist” in their names. But even Baptist churches in the South don’t typically do that. Churches are known as the “Whatever Street Baptist Church” or the “First Baptist Church.” Names such as the First Southern Baptist Church are rare.

The trend of not including “Baptist” (or “Methodist” or “Church of Christ,” etc., in a church name) is the newsier, more relevant angle.

Image of Baltimore Inner Harbor via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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