Monday, June 25, 2012

The Election of Rev. Fred Luter, Jr.

I recently came across an article about the election of Reverend Fred Luter, Jr. to lead the Southern Baptist Convention:

The headline read: “Southern Baptists elect 1st black president.”  I had heard several months ago that this was a possibility, so this news did not really surprise me.  But it was interesting nonetheless. 

More so than some other mainline Christian denominations, I actually have a relatively close connection to the Southern Baptists.  I’m from the South, so I’ve certainly had plenty of friends and acquaintances who were Southern Baptists, but my connection is closer than just that.  A lot of my family and many of my closest childhood friends are Southern Baptist.  I’ve attended Southern Baptist churches all my life.  As a teenager, I even worked at the day care center of a Southern Baptist congregation in the neighborhood where I lived. 

Based on these experiences, I can say honestly that the Southern Baptist denomination is not my cup of tea. I never felt led to be baptized in that denomination or even attend one of its churches regularly.  That is ok.  Everyone is different.  I mean no disrespect in saying the Southern Baptist Church is not for me.  I respect that lots of fine folks are Southern Baptists and the Church does a lot of great work. 

One of the reasons I was never real comfortable in the Southern Baptist churches I attended was my sense of its homogeneity.  Pretty much everyone was white and middle class.  They were also very conservative politically; “Reagan” was a name folks liked, “Jane Fonda” was not.  When they went to church, the Southern Baptists I knew wore their Sunday best.  Many of the ladies had the same floral patterned cloth Bible covers.  Everyone was good at rote memorization and could rattle off Bible verses.  I never felt like I fit in with any of that.

I think I was always familiar to some degree with the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.  But more than the reason it was formed in the 19th century, as a kid I always had a sense of the modern, on-going implicit racism. 

My own Southern Baptist grandparents were white Southerners of a generation pretty warped by bigotry and poverty.  The “n word” was certainly a part of their vocabulary, which horrified and confused me even as a little child.  I knew that was a vile word you were not supposed to ever say.  So, it always stunned me when my Southern Baptist grandparents muttered it. 

And it really confused me because that set of grandparents were the most religious ones in my family.  How could my most religious relatives also be the most racist?  That never jived in my little brain.  I didn’t understand how people who seemed to take Jesus so seriously would be so racist.  Even as a kid, the little I knew about Jesus led me to think he would not have been uttering racial epithets or supporting second-class treatment of people of a different race or ethnicity.  I did not understand. 

What’s more, I was particularly confused when we went to my grandparents’ huge church and the only non-white faces were the row of gentleman in the back row in traditional African garb.  Their presence was evidence of the church’s enthusiastic support of foreign missions.  It didn’t make sense to me that my grandparents’ church would seem inhospitable towards people of African descent when they were born on American soil, but would go out of their way to bring people from Africa across an ocean to Texas.  That really seemed like a contradiction my little brain couldn’t comprehend.

But I know the Southern Baptists have made great strides over the years. 

My Dad’s church (which is the same one where my grandparents were members) is much more diverse now.  They have a very vibrant ministry to Laotian immigrants, and the church does extensive work to help the immigrants get settled into homes and find jobs in the community. 

One of my close friends is on the board of the congregation where I worked as a teen in the day care center.  That Southern Baptist church hired a pastor a few years ago who is a woman and African American.  Their congregation also has a strong ministry in the Latino community and has learned to do quinciƱeras. 

When I was in law school, my husband used his extra free time by teaching in an ESL ministry of a local Southern Baptist church.  They taught hundreds of Latino immigrants practical language skills regardless of their religious affiliation.

Because I know Southern Baptists have made great strides, I wasn’t surprised by the headline of this article.  It simply seemed like a good thing.  What actually got my attention in reading this article was a point very relevant to the recent posts of this blog.  Per the article, Reverend Luter grew up with “a divorced mother and no father in the house.”  As a result, he prayed that he would be the role model for his own son that he himself never had. 

Apparently, Reverend Luter’s ministry has involved an “intensive outreach to men” in his hometown of New Orleans.  He has also expressed “concern that men in his inner-city neighborhood were not taking responsibility for their children.”  I’m not even sure what his ministry does exactly, but it sounds good to me. 

I think more churches need to minister to men.  It is confusing in this day and age as to what is expected and appropriate of men.  For the past century or more, the role of father in the family has consisted almost exclusively of breadwinner.  Dads left the home to earn money to support the family.  Period.  That model doesn’t really work in the 21st century when many women outperform men in terms of educational attainment and earn a paycheck. 

Moreover, in many economically depressed and isolated communities, there are few if any legal means to earn a paycheck.  Not being able to provide for one’s family can be such a crippling blow to a man’s self-respect due to society’s expectations.  “Demoralizing” doesn’t begin to describe the impact.  I certainly don’t condone but can perhaps understand to some degree why men in such situations might withdraw from their families when they cannot provide for them financially.  I’ve seen in happen in families I know.  It is heartbreaking on many levels.  The church may not be able to provide jobs to men in such situations, but we can certainly help men cope with that sort of challenge.

Job 29:16
I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

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