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The importance of the first African American leading an SBC entity

An interview with Willie McLaurin on racial unity and the future of our churches

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March 30, 2022

The people of God should delight in the different colors that make up the human race. Each shade is a reflection of the Creator’s beauty and creativity. Shamefully, we have often turned a point of celebration into one of contention. The Southern Baptist Convention is no exception. As we reckon with the sins of our past and move forward in obedience to God and love for our neighbor, it’s encouraging to see more diversity represented in the SBC. Willie McLaurin’s appointment as the interim president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee is a historic moment. He shares his perspective on the SBC, racial unity, and embracing diversity. 

What is the importance of your appointment as interim president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee to the worthy aim of racial unity? 

It marks a significant turning point in the history of the SBC. This is the first time in 177 years that an individual of non-Anglo descent has served as the interim or head of any SBC entity. This moment is marked with a number of African Americans who are serving in key positions in state conventions, associations, and national entities. In addition, many of our state conventions have non-Anglo leaders serving as president of their state conventions. I am prayerful this moment will signal the Southern Baptist Convention is actively engaged in atoning for the stain of racism.

I am honored to be the first African American to lead an SBC entity, even if only for an interim season. So many people have paved a path for me. I am standing on the shoulders of many who have gone before me, and I’m thankful for ministry leaders, past and present, who believed in me and gave me an opportunity to serve in various capacities. When I began serving in denominational work in 2004, my goal was to simply be faithful where the Lord planted me. My grandfathers were all born in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They would have never had an opportunity to serve where I am serving today. One of my grandfathers worked in a granite quarry. Grandpa Brim served as a deacon in his local Baptist church for more than 50 years. He modeled to me what it means to be faithful in serving God. I believe God has allowed me to serve in this moment because of my grandpa’s faithfulness that was passed on to my generation (Psalm 145:5). Now I want to serve faithfully so I can pass on a godly legacy to the generations that follow me.

As a Christian who is black and ministering in the Southern Baptist Convention, what have you been encouraged by in recent years as it relates to racial unity? And what have you been concerned about?

I have been encouraged by the vast number of individuals and organizations that realize racial unity is a gospel issue. It has been encouraging to see that our orthodoxy is beginning to inform our orthopraxy in the areas of racial unity. For many years, the Southern Baptist Convention was only talking racial reconciliation; however, upon the election of Dr. Fred Luter as the first African American president of the SBC, walls began to be torn down across our convention not only for African Americans but for all ethnic groups. I am seeing African Americans and other ethnic leaders serving in significant positions in associations, state conventions, and SBC entities. 

My concern has been what I call topical burnout. We live in a culture that has been discipled by cable news and social media. Thus, the latest topic and issue consume the narrative. When we are focused on racial unity as a gospel issue, we are focused; but, when other issues rise to the surface, our attention is derailed, and thus the conversation and focus has to be rebooted. I am concerned that as we attempt to atone for the stain of racism in the SBC that we do not erase the beauty of the vast numbers of ethnicities represented in the SBC. And, as we lock arms for the advancement of the gospel, we do not confuse unity with uniformity.

How would you counsel a pastor or church leader who desires their church to pursue racial unity? And how would you encourage them if they have grown weary in the work?

God has given pastors charge to provide spiritual leadership to the local church. I have often said that when you do not know how to talk about a matter, then you should be able to pray about the matter. I would encourage pastors to begin praying that God will create a culture in their church and community that facilitates racial unity. 

Second, I would encourage pastors to intentionally begin a relationship with someone that doesn’t look like him and begin to learn about his culture and customs. Every people group has a story, and once we develop community and spend time with each other we begin to cultivate love, which is the foundation for unity. 

Third, I would encourage pastors to disciple their members in the teaching of Jesus regarding racial unity and loving our neighbor. He taught very clearly how we are to relate to one another in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7).

If you could sit down with each member of the SBC individually, what would you want to say to them as it regards race relations in our country and our churches?

We should love other people the way that Jesus loves other people. Jesus says in John 13:35, “by this will all men know that you are my disciples that you have love one for another.” When you love other people the way that Jesus loves other people, you will treat them with dignity and respect. When you love other people the way Jesus loves other people, you will be quick to forgive and will always take the high road. First Peter 4:8 remind us, “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sin.” 

Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher, said, “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.” We need to learn from the past and use the lessons to help draft a picture of the foreseeable future. Our automobiles are equipped with a rear-view mirror and a front windshield. The front windshield is 80% larger than the rear-view mirror. I would encourage every individual to always take a glance at the past so that you can be rooted in what is true, but keep focused on creating a future that will honor the Kingdom of God.  

How can we encourage our brothers and sisters of color in these tumultuous times?

We are living in some really challenging times. We are still in a global pandemic, and there is racial unrest and political unrest. But there are five words that give us hope: “Jesus only, and only Jesus!” I would encourage my brothers and sisters of color to look to Jesus, and Jesus Christ alone. 

People of color are people who have traditionally held on to their faith in difficult times. Our faith is not a foolishly-optimistic type of faith where everyone has to be happy. We have a faith that is active during the difficult parts of the journey. I would encourage every person of color to be clear about who you are and whose you are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God to accomplish a specific purpose. If you allow other people to define who you are, then you are no more than they say you are. But if you are defined by God, then you are who God says you are. I would encourage you to stand for what is right and exercise your rights as a Kingdom citizen.

In your experience, do you have any practical wisdom for believers who are seeking to pursue diversity within their communities?

Pray: Convene a solemn assembly in every community in which churches come together across racial, cultural, and class lines with other churches. The purpose of this gathering is acknowledging and crying out for the presence of God. Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 is still unanswered: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one — as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Call on God, and then God works! 

Participate: Churches should join together in outreach to engage the entire community.
Create community partnerships such as adopting schools together and ministering at strategic points in the community. 

Partner: Churches should have a single, unified voice on clear issues of racial injustice in their communities. When these issues surface in the community and within the SBC, the Church cannot be silent. 

How can we, as Christians, ensure that our children grow up to be confident of their worth, not because of any attribute, but because God has created them in his image?

Psalm 127:3 says that our “children are a heritage from the Lord.” Our children are living in a difficult time in history. They have the world at the palm of their hand. They are connected digitally across the globe. When I was growing up, we had the complete set of World Book Encyclopedia. That treasured resource still sits on the bookshelf of my homestead. In our home, we do not have an encyclopedia, we have the World Wide Web. More specifically, we have Google. 

I would encourage parents, grandparents, and guardians to make sure that children are nurtured with love, care, and concern. Involve your children in a local church where they are regularly engaged in community. Teach your children to love God, love their family, and love others. We live in a “me-centered” culture, and children need community. Encourage your children to know that there is so much they can accomplish by God’s grace and in obedience to his will. 

Remember the words of Jesus: “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Luke 18:17). Here, as in so many other areas of the spiritual life, Jesus turns our human expectations inside-out and upside-down. The point, of course, is that knowing God is not a matter of mastering difficult theological concepts or immersing yourself in esoteric mystical experiences. It’s all about childlike trust.

Watch the ERLC’s racial unity event for an informative and hopeful conversation about race in the SBC. 

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Baptist Press

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the Editorial Director. She oversees the day-to-day management of our online content from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author