I remember well the day Oklahoma Baptists made the historic decision to elect the first Native American president of our state convention.
It took more than 100 years for this wonderful event to take place. In truth, Emerson Falls was elected primarily because he was a respected pastor and leader among Oklahoma Baptists, not solely because he was Native American.
In many ways, the delay in electing a Native American to lead us seems strange. Oklahoma is the land of the red man. There are more Native American Baptist churches here than in any other state. Native Americans have served on our convention’s board of directors for years. So on that rainy November day in Tulsa, Falls made history. He served with great distinction and continues to be a significant leader in Oklahoma as well as among Southern Baptists.
I predict (don’t have to be much of a prophet to do so) that next week in New Orleans another historic event will transpire regarding a person of color. Fred Luter will be elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He will be chosen not just because he is an African American, but because he is a respected pastor, beloved preacher and effective leader. Nonetheless, his election will mark the first time in the 167-year history of Southern Baptists that an African American serves as our chosen leader.
African Americans have long been a part of Southern Baptists. The presence of African American congregations affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention has grown steadily across the years. Racial segregation in Southern Baptist congregations has diminished greatly since the tumultuous days of the 1960s. I can’t think of any Southern Baptist church today that would not gladly receive members of any racial background into its fellowship.
That it took so long for churches not only to receive blacks, but also to welcome them, is a scar on our history. I am pleased that African Americans are members of our churches and that many serve in leadership. I rejoice that, today, the SBC is the most ethnically diverse denomination in America. Indeed, our African American churches and members are welcomed and cherished, as is every other racial group.
I believe the election of Luter will provide another stepping stone to eradicate the statement I have often heard—“In America, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” Our churches need to reflect our culture. More importantly, our churches need to reflect Heaven. One day, we shall gather around the throne of God with the multitudes from every tribe, tongue and nation to give unceasing praise to the King of kings. We should take advantage of every opportunity down here on Earth to practice for that moment.
I love Oklahoma Baptist diversity. As I move among the churches of Oklahoma, I am met by the savory flavors and spiritual aromas that flow in them. It is a tremendous joy to experience the spice of the Hispanics, the enthusiasm of the African Americans and the dignity of the Asians. But when we are placed in the melting pot of one church, it is heavenly.
I look forward to casting my vote for Fred Luter and to serving beside him and looking up to him as my leader. After Hurricane Katrina, I walked through his home with the Oklahoma Disaster Relief mud out team as they prepared to clear his house of the debris. He has visited our state a number of times to preach at various conferences. Luter is loved in Oklahoma, and will be a great leader for the Southern Baptist Convention.