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.
Q. Are you saying the black church also has a problem with racism?
YOUNG Sure, we all have a problem with racism, in a different way of course. There are some African-Americans who have had some real serious problems with the white church, with the Southern Baptist church for instance. Even in my own denomination, there are people right now who can’t overcome the history. And for them, the history has become a serious stumbling block. In fact I’ve never said this to Dr. Floyd, but I’ve had fellows in my own denomination who called me and said: “What are you doing? I mean, are you not aware of the history?” And I say, obviously I’m aware. They bring up the issue about slavery and that becomes a reason, they say, that we ought not to be involved with the Southern Baptists. Where from my vantage point, that’s reverse racism. I do understand the history, and I understand the pain of the past. But what I’m also quite clear about is, if the Gospel does anything at all, the Gospel demands that we not only preach but practice reconciliation.
Q. The Southern Baptist Convention does have quite a history of racism.
FLOYD Yes, and I’m deeply regretful for that. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845. I can’t do anything about what happened in 1845, but I can do a lot about where we are today in 2015. My church has a lot of people that are not white. We live in the homeland of Walmart, J. B. Hunt, Tyson Foods and the University of Arkansas. And with the growth of those companies, our whole region has changed. And in order for us to reach our region, we have to be able to reach all people.
YOUNG I’ve had this question asked of me about the motive. And my answer has been, one, I actually do believe in Dr. Floyd. I think he’s honest, a fine Christian gentleman. But if the motive is not pure, I tell people all the time, if in the end, good comes out of it, the community is blessed, the church, the culture, America is made better, even if people have impure motives. Because I do believe it is so critical. America in my opinion is a powder keg. This racial thing is some awesome stuff.
Q. The presidential campaign has gotten very nasty, with racial overtones. Some of the candidates — Gov. Mike Huckabee, Senator Ted Cruz — who have spoken most harshly about President Obama are Southern Baptists.
YOUNG I think the tone of the public rhetoric incites racism. I think it gives persons who want to be racist a sense that it’s O.K. to do this. It empowers them and they’re emboldened by it.
FLOYD I’m a Baptist pastor, I’m not in politics. But I would say that Governor Huckabee and Senator Cruz have got to answer for themselves. I told my people numerous times, don’t call the president by his last name alone. Regardless if you believe in his politics or you don’t, he is President Obama. I talked to them about the importance of preserving the office.
YOUNG That’s right, that’s right.
FLOYD Because if you don’t model that with the leader of the nation, you’re not going to model it to your teachers in your schools, to your bosses on your jobs.
Q. Are there concrete things you see your churches taking on together? What about issues like criminal justice or sentencing reform?
FLOYD We’re going to encourage our pastors to swap pulpits, get them in uncomfortable or at least different environments than they’re used to.
YOUNG I will only go to Arkansas if he comes to Mississippi.
FLOYD It will be a joy to come to Mississippi.
YOUNG Fellowshipping is what he’s talking about. We’ve agreed to that. He’s absolutely correct: Suspicion, fear, distrust, all that stuff is there. How do you get beyond that if you don’t get to know people?
SOURCE: The New York Times – Laurie Goodstein is the national religion correspondent for The New York Times.