- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - When Ferguson, Missouri, exploded two years ago with racial unrest that spread across the nation, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention was moved to action.

Together with an interracial group of his fellow ministers, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd penned an article that called on Southern Baptist pastors, churches and laypeople to repent of racism and injustice. “Silence is not the answer and passivity is not our prescription for healing,” it read.

It was one of the most strongly worded denunciations of racism ever released by leaders of a denomination founded in a split over slavery, and it set in motion events leading to a “national conversation on racial unity” to take place at the SBC’s annual meeting on Tuesday.

Speaking to the membership of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination will be the Rev. Jerry Young, president of the nation’s largest historically black denomination, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.

The discussion follows a series of steps by Southern Baptists to overcome their history and address racism that include the election of its first African-American president in 2012 and an increasing focus on opposition to racism by the denomination’s public policy arm.

But those efforts have been obscured at times as some in the denomination reject calls to be more deliberate about diversity, likening that to racial quotas. And while the 15.3-million-member denomination says about 20 percent of its churches are now predominantly non-white, including many African-American churches, the top Southern Baptist leadership remains entirely white.

The position of president is largely ceremonial and usually consists of two 1-year terms. Floyd will be replaced at next week’s meeting, so leading the conversation on racial unity will be one of his last acts as president.

The fact that the discussion will take place in St. Louis, just down the road from Ferguson, is more than symbolic to Floyd. “It’s providential and amazing!” he said, since the meeting place was set years before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown during a confrontation with a Ferguson police officer.

Floyd said the nation’s political leaders have failed to address the racial issues facing America. “But the churches are the ones that really need to be speaking about it anyway because church is where the solution is.”

However, he said, “The church can’t call on America to repent of anything until the church repents. And Southern Baptists can’t call on the country to repent until Southern Baptists repent.”

The convention has passed resolutions denouncing racism at least seven times at its annual meetings, including a 1995 resolution that apologized for the Nashville-based denomination’s role in supporting slavery and racism and asked for forgiveness from African Americans.

The discussion next week comes at a time of declining membership for the SBC, which says it lost more than 200,000 members in 2015. Some leaders see more racial diversity as a key to turning that decline around.

Asked what he hopes will come out of next week’s discussion, Floyd said, “We want to leave people with a burden, not only to pray, but to take action in their own communities. …We believe everybody on this earth is made in the image of God. Everybody has value.”

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