Two men made the news this week, both of whom said the right thing when it mattered most: one after being in the wrong place at the wrong time, one while being in the right place at the right time.
Rodney King became a household name in 1991 after a bystander videotaped him being beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a traffic stop. The release of the video and the subsequent acquittals of the police officers led to days of race riots, more than 50 deaths and $1 billion in damages.
He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he said the right thing when he made his televised plea, “Can we all get along?”
He drowned in a swimming pool this week at age 47. His death sparked a family discussion around the dinner table where my wife and I explained the story to our daughters.
The man who is in the right place at the right time is Frank Luter Jr., a New Orleans pastor who on Tuesday was elected the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He also said the right thing.
“We cannot do anything about the past,” he said. “It’s gone. It’s over with. However, we can do a lot about our future.”
Luter is pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, an inner-city congregation that grew to 7,000 under his preaching before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the building – just the building – under nine feet of water. The church rebuilt and now welcomes 4,000 members and guests to Sunday services.
This is a historic moment. The “Southern” in the Southern Baptist Convention’s name is there because of a pre-Civil War split with other Baptists over the appointment of slave-holding missionaries, and the convention remained segregated until the recent past.
Although things are better now than then, most Baptist churches today, like most churches of all denominations, are not racially diverse. In fact, only about eight percent of all churches in America are multiethnic, meaning that no one race makes up more than 80 percent of the congregation.
That’s a little harder to explain to my children.
With 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the second-largest Christian denomination in the U.S., though its membership has declined each of the past five years – one of many reasons to reach out to people from different backgrounds.
In Arkansas, it’s one of the state’s dominant institutions. In a state of 3 million people, there were 520,521 Southern Baptists at the end of last year. In many Arkansas communities, the biggest Baptist church is the biggest church in town. Baptist Health is the state’s leading heath care provider.
An Arkansan can be born and die in a Southern Baptist hospital, be educated by the Arkansas Baptist School System, attend one of the state’s two Southern Baptist colleges, work for a Southern Baptist-affiliated employer, and retire in a Southern Baptist retirement village. The Bible says that we are dust and will become dust. In Arkansas, there’s a good chance you’ll be Baptist in between.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, graduated from Ouachita Baptist University, and now attend a church whose belief structure is similar to the SBC’s.
While the convention doesn’t have a proud history when it comes to racial reconciliation at home, it long has reached out to people of all backgrounds worldwide. The convention sponsors 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean and another 5,000 in 153 nations elsewhere. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, which has more than 100,000 trained volunteers, is one of the country’s three largest relief organizations.
Southern Baptists in recent years have been trying to make amends. The convention voted in 1995 to repent of its past failings and issued a strongly worded appeal for forgiveness.
In 1963, another King, Dr. Martin Luther King, said at Western Michigan University, “At 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand and sing, and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Sadly, 49 years later, that’s still mostly the case. But this week, Southern Baptists took a step – a small one, but a step – in turning that present reality into a memory. That’s good, because in heaven and on earth, we ought to do more than simply get along.