Southern Baptist Pastor Confronts His Own, Church's Racial Past

Jun 22, 2017

Karen Cunigan, middle, of Maryland, wipes away tears after members attending the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting voted to formally condemn the political movement known as "alt-right" white supremacy, Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Phoenix.
Credit Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo

The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest denominations in the country, voted recently to denounce white supremacy and the alt-right movement, but not without controversy.

Initially, church leaders tried to table the resolution, which was proposed by a prominent African American pastor. The vote proceeded, however, following a backlash from members who condemned the alt-right movement as a "growing menace" to society and recalled the Southern Baptists' painful history of promoting and sustaining slavery.

"Any 'church' that cannot denounce white supremacy without hesitancy and equivocation is a dead, Jesus-denying assembly," tweeted one African American Southern Baptist minister. 

Pastor Clark Killingsworth with the College Avenue Baptist Church.
Credit College Avenue Baptist Church / Facebook

Clark Killingsworth, pastor of the College Avenue Baptist Church in Normal, followed the proceedings of last week's Convention meeting in Phoenix from home. He said the church has taken significant steps to atone for its racial history.  

The Convention formed in 1845 after it split with northern Baptists over the question of slavery. In 1995, the Convention formally apologized for its support of slavery. In 2015, it passed a resolution calling for racial reconciliation. Last week's resolution denouncing white nationalism passed overwhelmingly.

Killingsworth said his family history mirrors the changes that have occurred in his church.

"My grandfather was a racist," Killingsworth said on GLT's Sound Ideas. "He, according to my mother, participated in the Ku Klux Klan. He was not a Southern Baptist, he was not even church-going."

Killingsworth said his parents raised him within the Southern Baptist tradition and instilled in him "an understanding that God created all people and that all people have the same color of blood and we shouldn't discriminate against people based on color of skin."

Growing up in a predominantly white community, he said, "I had to learn how do we live that out practically. But to know where my mother came from in her upbringing and to see where I am today gives me hope," he added.

At his College Avenue church, he said he tries to create an atmosphere where all races and ethnic groups can feel welcome.  He said the local congregation mirrors the racial make-up of McLean County, where only about 10 percent of the population is African American.

Killingsworth called the controversy over the white nationalism resolution stemmed less from the content of the proposal than a procedural concern about some of its wording.

"There was not some alt-right wing party at the convention trying to promote their view," he said.

He pointed to a "Statement of Faith"  the Convention adopted nearly two decades ago that  says its members are "obligated to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and human society, opposing all forms of racism, selfishness and vice.

He called the church's previous  embrace of slavery part of an "unfortunate history."

The Convention also passed a resolution calling for good "moral character" in public officials, similar to one passed during the Clinton administration at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Evangelical and conservative Christians overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

"We definitely want a president who is moral and upright and supports godly causes," Killingsworth said.

"President Trump has done some things we all wish had not been done or said. Every president has made mistakes," he added. He declined to elaborate.

"There is a lot of hurt in our nation and I want to be someone who is used by God to bring healing and help to the issues of our day. I don't want to be one who is divisive and causes further pain and exacerbates the problem of racism in our culture," Killingsworth said.

About 15 million Americans identify their faith tradition as Southern Baptist. It is the second largest Christian denomination in the U.S. after Roman Catholics. There are about 46,000 Southern Baptist churches. Of them, about 3,000 are predominantly African America.

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