(RNS) Southern Baptists turned a sharp focus on racism during their annual meeting, welcoming the president of a historically black denomination in a rare address to their national gathering.
“Those who would like to suggest that racism is not indeed a problem for the church but rather it is a sociological problem, I would argue it is without question a sin problem,” the Rev. Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, told the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday (June 14).
Young’s appearance was the first time a president of the black denomination had addressed the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in at least 35 years. Outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd extended the invitation, saying that any form of racism defies the dignity of human life.
“Our Southern Baptist churches must rise together as one and decry this atrocity and we need to lead through this crisis in the gospel way,” Floyd said.
Young recalled growing up in Mississippi – “I know racism firsthand” – and being encouraged by his preacher father to become a Christian.
He described himself as “a young man who … despised people who looked like Dr. Floyd, because I thought they were the problem until I met Jesus, until Jesus Christ became Lord of my life.”
Floyd and Young previously led a conversation in Mississippi on race along with 10 leaders each from their denominations.
More than 6,000 messengers, or delegates, are meeting this week about 20 minutes from Ferguson, Mo., a city torn by racial unrest after an unarmed black teen was killed by a white police officer in 2014.
Church historian Bill Leonard said the continuing dialogue between Floyd and Young is significant because it responds to calls for improved race relations.
“There is genuine concern for racial reconciliation among many, particularly younger Southern Baptists,” he said. “Both denominations need cooperation and engagement in very practical ways since their denominational resources are dwindling and shared ministries may be helpful to both.”
Right after Young spoke, the leader of a prominent Southern Baptist church in Charleston, S.C., spoke of the “grief and grace” that filled his city after the shooting deaths of nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church almost exactly a year ago.
“Racially motivated murder hurt all of us,” said the Rev. Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston. “The white community for the first time in some ways was experiencing the depth of the pain, for the first time beginning to understand it was our church that was attacked, our people, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors.”
To drive home his point, Blalock asked the Baptists gathered in America’s Center Convention Complex to stand as he named the nine victims and told a bit about each of them, their ages and roles in the church and the community.
“Let’s build a bridge,” Blalock said, urging people to dine with those of another race. “Don’t wait for this to happen anywhere else.”
Even as Baptists focused specifically on racism, the meeting was sprinkled with prayer about the shooting rampage in Orlando, Fla., that left 50 people dead.
“While America is stunned by this act of terrorism, ISIS is rejoicing,” said Floyd in his presidential address. “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. As followers of Jesus Christ we stand against any form of bigotry, hatred or violence against our nation and against any people of this world.”
He also condemned what he said were sales of aborted fetus parts by Planned Parenthood and the lighting up of the White House in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
“These days are not some new morality,” he said. “They are signs that our nation is on the ragged edge of moral insanity.”