In a recent editorial a syndicated conservative columnist observes that politicians are difficult to label. He notes the liberal label historically has fit one American political party well because of its willingness to promote military intervention for humanitarian causes. He further observes that the opposing party has traditionally been unwilling to engage in global military efforts, preferring to remain isolated from the world unless our country experiences a direct attack.
How strange it is when the conservatives in our national political system are in favor of preemptively employing our military to engage in nation-building and the liberals are clamoring for more narrow rules of military engagement. The lesson is that political labels serve little purpose other than to identify who is on whose side.
This got me to thinking about the world of Virginia Baptists. We are fond of batting about various labels for ecclesial/political purposes. We hold high the banner of moderate in the larger Baptist world. But what does this label mean? In what ways are we a moderate force? Does this political label translate into theology and practice that demonstrates a progressive or moderate way?
My reflections on these questions are concerned with the realities of our state's demographic changes, our historic pattern of being less than inclusive ethnically in local church and denominational life, and the ways we can demonstrate God's kingdom through egalitarian, inclusive ecclesial practices. It is my contention that our moderate label says little about our ability to integrate ethnic clergy and lay leaders into the larger leadership structure of Virginia Baptists and challenges us to live up to a higher Christ-like standard.
I have been considering for some time the changes taking place in Virginia demographics. More people from different cultural and racial backgrounds are calling Virginia home. Our executive director, John Upton, makes every effort to hold before us Virginia Baptists the increasing realities of multi-cultural life. New ethnic congregations are springing up throughout the state on a monthly basis. Established ethnic churches are transforming their communities and becoming more connected to Virginia Baptist life.
Our future as a moderate Baptist state will be related to the ways we make efforts to reach out and include people of African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American and other ethnic groups. If we are to be a relevant part of our state's future, we must work to intentionally connect to the non-white congregations and populations in Virginia.
Historically, we have not been the most inclusive of people. Virginia Baptists are not known for integrating non-whites into local congregations, denominational employment or elected denominational office. Most established Virginia Baptist churches are entirely white. Few of our churches have been successful in integrating non-whites into their membership. The best way we've found to connect to ethnic populations is to find ethnic pastors to start ethnic churches. This has been a good step toward embracing those ethnic communities.
Efforts to connect to ethnic populations have not translated into a significant increase in the number of non-whites being elected to volunteer positions in the BGAV. Very few members of the Virginia Baptist Resource Center staff are non-white. Very few members of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board or other volunteer committees and trustee boards are non-white. And since our founding in 1823 we have elected only one BGAV officer who was not white. In sum, we have a long-established pattern of exclusivity that translates into a very small percentage of our leaders being non-white.
This presents Virginia Baptists with a great challenge. How do we continue to serve as relevant messengers of Christianity to a state that is becoming more and more multi-cultural? If our leadership reflects an unspoken racial prejudice, a protection of a racially-biased status quo, how can we expect to be trusted as authentic representatives of the Christ-way? My understanding of Christ's teachings guides me to believe our Lord reached out to those on the margins of society—women, children, the physically disabled, the Samaritans and Gentiles. It is time for Virginia Baptists to put into practice these principles of Christ, demonstrating that neighbor-love is best reflected when those not like us are given seats of honor in our lives and our denominational culture.
How can we move beyond these racist patterns of practice and embrace the multi-ethnic world of today's (and tomorrow's) Virginia? On one level, it is important for ethnic candidates to be hired for local church and denominational staffs. Intentionally hiring non-whites will change the way we understand the abilities and gifts of other peoples. It is also important for the white establishment to develop stronger relationships with ethnic congregations. Efforts should be made to bring people together to discuss the issues that confront today's Virginia Baptists. Ethnic clergy and lay leaders should be invited to the table of denominational leadership to help shape the future directions of Virginia Baptists.
In order to facilitate denominational integration of Virginia's ethnic congregations, I have three proposals. First, let's begin to hold meetings around the state for white and non-white leaders to get together, share a meal and discuss these issues. My impression is that the established Virginia Baptist leadership has few connections to the ethnic clergy and lay leadership in the state. Let's bring all of our leaders together to develop a mechanism for getting ethnic congregations involved in the volunteer leadership of Virginia Baptists.
Second, let's begin this year to elect more ethnic clergy and lay leaders to volunteer positions in the BGAV. This means more African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and other ethnicities being nominated to committees, trustee boards and the officer positions. I believe viable candidates can be found this year for president, first vice president and second vice president.
And third, to ensure our non-white officers aren't a form of tokenism, let's set up an on-going commission to monitor and bring annual reviews of efforts to connect ethnic groups to every level of Virginia Baptist life. This commission can grant us perspective on where we've come from, where we are, and how much more we have to go.
Virginia Baptists are people of an historic moderate way. We are committed to the cause of Christ and embody the Christ-way in so many ministry efforts. Our world is becoming more and more ethnically diverse and we have the opportunity for our leadership to reflect a connection and an embrace of that diversity. Now is the time for us to be an ecclesial body for Virginians of all cultures.