I am and lead a church that is a cooperating member of the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up in an SBC church. I was there from the first time I pooped in my diapers until I left for college. When I say I was there, I mean every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and many days and nights in between for eighteen years- with the exception of vacation or highly contagious illness. And, I am deeply grateful that for all those years I was blessed to have the same pastor (a miracle of longevity I was unaware of at the time).
It was a great church filled with lots of great people, many of whom God used to shape my life and prepare me for ministry. The only public disagreement I ever witnessed took place during my junior year in college in 1974. I just happened to be home from college on what turned out to be a historic spring Sunday in the life of our church, which was located in the heart of Memphis, TN. On that day, for the first time since the founding of the church in the late 1800’s, African Americans presented themselves for membership.
The typical routine when someone joined in those days was for our pastor to introduce the new member candidates to the congregation immediately after the invitation and to actually vote to receive them. After saying their names, he would ask, “all in favor say, “aye,” and then pause as the 1500+ in unison always said, “aye.” Following that, he would say, “all opposed with like sign.” That phrase was merely a tacked-on afterthought and, without pausing for a response, my pastor typically would continue on with the order of service. But that was not a typical morning.
He had never paused and there had never been a “no” vote… until that Sunday. He still didn’t pause, but in spite of that, for the first time in the 20+ years I had attended, there were a couple of “no” votes- loud ones. Then my pastor did pause. He spoke a brief, kind, but pointed word, and graciously called for an “all opposed” vote again, clearly hoping that this time minds would change and there would be none. Unfortunately, he was wrong. A handful of others became emboldened and there were more harsh “no’s.”
I had never experienced such an air of tension before. Several of the teenagers raced out of the sanctuary into the lobby in shock and in tears. My pastor then seated the family (who had bravely and awkwardly stood there during the proceedings). Many men in that circumstance would have settled for letting the “ayes” have it and moved on, allowing things to fester, but not my pastor, Dr. R. Paul Caudill. He was not willing to settle for ANY opposition. So, before dismissing the congregation, he called for an emergency mandatory meeting of the deacons for that afternoon.
I wish I could have been in that meeting. My understanding is that he simply told the deacons that the church should unreservedly welcome this family into our membership or he could no longer serve as the pastor of a church that would not. In his mind and heart, there was no other choice. For over 35 years he had been beloved by the people and the city. So, there apparently was very little discussion. That said a whole lot not only about him, but also about the character of most of the deacons present as well.
I’m delighted to say that the very next Sunday the family was unanimously received into the church, while the church waved “goodbye” to the handful who had been so vocally negative. They were never missed. If memory correctly serves me, our church was the first “white” church in the city of Memphis to receive a “black” family into its membership. That spring Sunday in 1974 was historic for the First Baptist Church of Memphis. And, yesterday, a summer Wednesday in 2012, was historic for the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, for the very first time, elected an African American as President. It was a blessed day.
My prayer now is two-fold. I pray that this will open the door for much more diversity in our convention as a whole. And, I pray that Dr. Luter will lead us not only toward more extensive racial reconciliation, but toward reconciliation regarding the rift that was created through the 80’s and 90’s that divided our convention right down the middle. Many good leaders who were no less conservative but had a disdain for the politics of those years, were told, in effect, “you have no place here.” It was prejudice, just of another variety. Most have long since moved on, just grateful for the autonomy of the local church. Many others simply could care less anymore. However, I can’t help but think that an expression of reconciliation would go a long way toward healing long lasting wounds and strengthen our convention.
I’m grateful for Dr. Fred Luter. And, I’m grateful for Dr. R. Paul Caudill and others like him who courageously helped lay the foundation for such a day as this.