Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, held its Annual Meeting in Dallas. Almost 10,000 messengers gathered to hear reports about various denomination entities, to elect new officers, and to debate and vote on new resolutions.
A few days before the meeting began, members of the SBC were primarily concerned about two major news stories. Firstly, Paige Patterson–arguably the most influential SBC pastor of the past thirty years–had recently been fired from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Secondly, J.D. Greear–a young, dynamic pastor at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area–was in the running for president of the SBC (which he eventually won).
Few would have guessed that something else would soon come to dominate the headlines. On June 11, the day before the Annual Meeting began, the SBC announced that there would be a schedule change–Vice President Mike Pence had been given a speaking slot on June 13. On June 12, Garrett Kell made a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but after a brief debate, the motion was voted on by messengers, and it failed.
On June 13, Mike Pence delivered his speech at the SBC Annual Meeting (see the full transcript here). Aside from some remarks about the importance of evangelism, Bible study, and prayer, the speech was filled with boasts about what President Donald Trump had accomplished over the past five hundred days of his presidency–from Korean peninsula peace talks to largescale tax reform to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Understandably, many people, both before the speech and after the speech, publicly criticized the SBC for allowing the speech to happen (see here and here). Some highlighted the need to separate church and state–as Ed Stetzer tweeted, “When you mix politics and religion, you get politics.” Others talked about how Pence’s presence compromised the church’s mission and disrupted church unity.
But one article in particular caught my eye. Titled “I Don’t Understand Minority Reactions to the VP Visit: That’s Why We NEED Each Other,” Dave Miller wrote in SBC Voices that although he didn’t comprehend why many minorities reacted so strongly to the announcement of Pence’s invitation, he wanted to be able to comprehend. He wrote, “I know some of you in minority communities are discouraged but things are beginning to change and we need you. I need you. I need to hear what you think and how you think even when it makes me uncomfortable or challenges my normal thinking.”
I am thankful for people like Dave Miller–people in the SBC who genuinely want to understand the experiences and opinions of minorities. It is this open-mindedness that prevents stagnation and fosters growth.
I am a SBC pastor who is an ethnic minority. I am only one voice, so I cannot represent all ethnic minorities in the SBC. However, I thought I would offer my take on the situation in the hope that more people will understand where we come from. Here are a few things to know about ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations, and how it affects our reaction to what happened at the SBC Annual Meeting.
1. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations hold tightly to the narrative that they are outsiders.
As an Asian American, even though I was born and raised in the United States, I have always had a slight inferiority complex whenever I am in situations where there aren’t many Asian Americans around. It’s not a characteristic that I chose to have; it has been with me for as long as I can remember. It’s this inner voice that constantly reminds me, “You are different. No matter how hard you try, you cannot fit in.”
I am fortunate enough to have never personally experienced an intentionally malicious form of racism, but nonetheless, my inferiority complex has been subtly reinforced by small experiences here and there throughout my life. It started at an early age, when I would hear comments in middle school about Asians being good at karate or math. It persisted into adulthood, when people would ask me, “But where are you really from?” And it continues even into my ministry career, when people assume that just because I am an Asian pastor that my church is an Asian church. All of these experiences have slowly but steadily built this deeply ingrained narrative that I am a permanent outsider.
As a result, whenever I go to denomination events, I cannot help but feel that I am different. The closest experience that I can think of is choosing where to sit for lunch on the first day of high school. There is this overwhelming perception (whether warranted or not) that everybody else has a clique, a niche, a place of belonging, and I am the lone wanderer looking for my place in this world.
2. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations have struggled with the decision to be in those denominations.
Just as a fantasy football fanatic often feels comfortable spending time with fellow fantasy football fanatics, and just as a stay-at-home mom often feels comfortable spending time with fellow stay-at-home moms, many ethnic minorities feel comfortable spending time with other ethnic minorities.
As an Asian American, I have an immediate bond with other Asian Americans–even those I am meeting for the first time. We have a united set of shared experiences from which we can draw, from our family-language-barrier struggles to our addiction to bubble tea to our near-idolization of Jeremy Lin. And to step outside of that familiar bubble into another bubble is not an easy decision.
Almost all Asian American Christians I have come across have struggled with the following question: should I attend an Asian American church? In almost all cases, an Asian American church guarantees more comfort, more security, and more community. And in almost all cases, Asian Americans who do not attend Asian American churches (whether they are predominantly white or multi-ethnic or something else) have intentionally chosen to set aside comfort, security, and community. And many of them, for better or for worse, and especially when things get hard, sometimes ask themselves, “Did I make the right decision?”
I want to suggest that what is true of churches is also true of denominations. Many ethnic minorities have chosen their predominantly white denominations with mixed feelings, and almost every time something happens that reminds them that they are different, they ask, “Did I make the right decision?”
3. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations long to be acknowledged and valued.
I concede that there are ethnic minorities out there who seek recognition in an inappropriate way. They criticize, attack, and condemn everything in the majority culture in an abrasive, disorderly fashion. They have no desire for reconciliation. However, the large majority of ethnic minorities that are in predominantly white denominations are there because they genuinely believe in the core mission of those denominations, and they want to be effectively valued and utilized so that they can help to further that mission.
Ethnic minorities are often thinking about the majority culture, “I am sacrificing a lot to commit to you. I hope that you are also committed to me.” Although they will still feel like outsiders, they can at least rest in the fact that they are valued outsiders. However, if ethnic minorities are not acknowledged or valued–if there are never any conversations about race, if there is no minority representation in leadership, if there is no interest from the majority culture in their traditions–then many of them over time will feel more and more alone. Furthermore, the self-isolation of ethnic minorities perpetuates if there are decisions within the denomination as a whole that seem to reveal an extreme lack of understanding or awareness of ethnic minorities (e.g. Lifeway’s 2004 VBS curriculum).
The experience is similar to basketball stars who choose to leave their team, take a salary cut, and accept a bench role in order to be on a championship-contending team. They have intentionally made large sacrifices because they believe in their new team, and perhaps the most demoralizing thing to do to these players is to give them zero playing time. Similarly, ethnic minorities often make large sacrifices in order to be a part of predominantly white churches or denominations. They did not join these organizations just to silently sit on the sidelines. Rather, they joined these organizations in the hope that they will get involved.
4. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations are more politically progressive than their counterparts.
When I am spending time with white ministers within my denomination, people are often taken aback when I mention that I identify with the political left more so than the political right. It is almost as if I am speaking heresy. Evangelical Protestants frequently assume that all theological conservatives are political conservatives, but that assumption is not true. A Pew Research study in 2014 found that while 65% of white evangelical Protestants lean Republican, only 49% of Asian evangelical Protestants, 31% of Latino evangelical Protestants, and 12% of black evangelical Protestants do so. Alternately, while only 21% of white evangelical Protestants lean Democrat, 37% of Asian evangelical Protestants, 41% of Latino evangelical Protestants, and 73% of black evangelical Protestants do so.
We can debate why this discrepancy exists, but at the very least, we all need to recognize that this discrepancy exists. If we do not, evangelicals on the political right will unintentionally but inevitably push those ethnic minorities away.
5. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations are very disturbed by the allegiance of white evangelicalism to the Republican Party.
The sudden rise of Donald Trump caught many Americans off-guard, but among the most flabbergasted were evangelical minorities. When it came to light that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 (which was a higher percentage than votes that Republican candidates received in 2004, 2008, or 2012), many of these minorities who had been faithfully laboring in evangelical churches found themselves wondering, “I didn’t realize that I was so different from everybody else.” And as they continued to silently watch white evangelicals react negatively to #BlackLivesMatter, the removal of Confederate monuments, and the national anthem controversy, their awareness of the stark differences between them and the majority culture grew stronger and stronger.
That is the context in which Mike Pence spoke at the SBC. For many, the fact that the leadership of the SBC saw no issue in allowing Mike Pence to speak at the Annual Meeting, the fact that the majority of SBC messengers would affirm this decision by vote, and the fact that Pence’s adoration of Trump received so many standing ovations all added to the same old narrative that we had been preaching to ourselves for so long: we are outsiders.
I share all of this not from a position of judgment and condemnation. I have no intention of leaving the SBC. I share this in the hope that some white evangelicals in predominantly white denominations will have a greater awareness of the ethnic minority brothers and sisters in their midst, so that we can work together toward building racial reconciliation.