An Oklahoma church has been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention because the pastor performed in blackface at a church event and impersonated a Native American woman at another.
Matoaka Baptist Church in Ocheleta, Okla., was deemed “not in friendly cooperation” with the SBC by the denomination’s Executive Committee Sept. 19.
The complaint against the church was brought to the SBC Credentials Committee by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. In SBC process, the Credentials Committee is charged with receiving complaints, investigating them and making recommendations to the Executive Committee, which acts on behalf of the convention between annual sessions.
In one of the offensive incidents, Pastor Sherman Jaquess in 2017 portrayed himself in blackface mimicking Ray Charles at a church Valentine banquet.
“I was playing the part of Ray Charles, and the guy next to me was playing Willie Nelson,” the pastor told Baptist Press. “My face was not black, but the flash on the camera made it look black. It was just brown. We sang the song, ‘Seven Spanish Angels.’ I was playing the part of Ray Charles. There wasn’t anything derogatory about it.”
Twelve years prior, at a “Cowboys and Indians” night at youth camp, he dressed as a Native American woman.
Jaquess, who said he’s part Cherokee, claimed he wasn’t attempting to caricature Native people. And in the Ray Charles incident, he told the Associated Press it’s “repugnant to have people think you’re a racist,” especially when paying tribute to Ray Charles.
“If it had been done in a derogatory or hateful manner, that would be one thing, but the church was full of people. Nobody took it as a racial slur,” he said.
Philip Robertson, chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, said the Credentials Committee reached out to the church several times before making the decision to expel the 200-year-old church, which is located in a small community north of Tulsa, near Bartlesville.
“There is an extensive process before you get to what we did today,” Robertson said. “That does not happen without lengthy inquiries. I think it’s fair to say that those inquiries often begin at the local association level and the local state convention level.
“There’s definitely a collaborative effort between our Credentials Committee, the local association, the local state convention and then even those churches themselves,” Robertson said. “This particular church chose not to respond, but there were multiple efforts.”
However, the pastor told the AP a different story, saying an SBC leader contacted him a few months ago and said the Credentials Committee would send a packet “where I would have to prove I wasn’t a racist.” Jaquess said he never received anything until he heard about the pending vote against his congregation.
Jacquess also believes his actions shouldn’t be considered as racist or derogatory.
“I am most certainly not a racist,” he told Baptist Press. “My whole life’s work, I’ve worked with multiple different types of racial people. I don’t have a racial bone in my body.”
But he also doesn’t see the problem with the way he dressed up, he said. “Any defaming act is repugnant. But I don’t get offended when Black people play a part in a movie, or a comedy act and they act like a different race. I know my heart. I didn’t have anything hateful or derogatory toward any race.”
Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lawton, Okla., and a prominent SBC leader who is Cherokee, Comanche and Kiowa, praised the Executive Committee for its action in a tweet: “I am grateful for the @SBCExecComm and the SBC Credentials Committee for their action against the church who allowed this behavior from their pastor.”
Along with his tweet, Keahbone posted photos of the two offensive events.
The SBC Credentials Committee has been best known lately for expelling churches that allow women to serve as pastors or that allow gay people to fully participate in their congregations. A few other churches have been expelled for racist positions or actions, but the Oklahoma case is likely a first-of-its-kind offense in the modern era.
Once a common comedic practice among white people, blackface more recently has been widely understood to be racist and derogatory.