“In the end it’s not just about complexion; it’s about direction,” the founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, told British journalist Martin Bashir on MSNBC.
By Bob Allen
African-American activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson called the election of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first black president a “step in the right direction” and “a victory for the Civil Rights Movement,” but said it is too soon to tell whether it will bring lasting change to the nation’s second-largest faith group.
“We’ve changed leadership,” Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said June 24 on MSNBC. “The culture has to change with the leadership.”
Jackson described Fred Luter — pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans — elected last week to lead and represent the 16-million-member historically white denomination, “a powerful preacher,” but said “it will take time to determine what direction he wants to take the convention in.”
“In the end it’s not just about complexion; it’s about direction,” Jackson said. “And direction today, there is too much violence in our country, too few people with too much, too many with little or nothing.”
Jackson says the election of a black SBC president is the latest sign that the South has changed since Martin Luther King wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963 about resistance from white ministers in the battle to end segregation.
“This is an ongoing battle that we are winning every day in making America in some sense more open on issues of racial justice and gender equality,” said Jackson, one of King’s closest aides and a witness to his assassination on April 4, 1968.
He said both Luter and Southern Baptists should be congratulated. “I think Reverend Luter has a tremendous opportunity,” Jackson said. “He deserves support. He deserves a grace period to see what it is he wants to do. He deserves our prayers.”
In a video interview with the Christian Post, Luter said one of his goals will be to reverse a membership decline that has developed in recent years.
“This is a denomination and a convention that has always been about evangelism and reaching people with the gospel,” Luter said. “That’s something we’ve always been very proud of, and in recent years we’ve kind of gotten a little off track, because our baptisms have decreased, our membership has decreased. So, one of the things that I hope to do is to help us get back to making those things a priority, so that we can start impacting again the kingdom of heaven as we have done before.”
Jackson said one thing that has been largely missing in Southern Baptists’ talk about evangelism — including addition of a new descriptor of “Great Commission” Baptists to the SBC brand — is emphasis on the church’s mission to “preach good news to the poor.”
“We don’t hear enough about the poor,” Jackson said. “I hope the church becomes the great friend of the abandoned on life’s Jericho road — that becomes our mission.”