RIDGECREST, NC (BP) – Southern Baptist African American pastor Ryan Rice, founder and leader of Life Church in New Orleans, is experiencing the first Black Church Leadership and Family Conference of his 30-some years. "To see other pastors who look like me ... and have flourished in their families and their ministries -- that's been a huge blessing and an encouragement," Rice told Baptist Press July 18 on the second day of the conference scheduled through July 21 at the Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C.
Rice connected with the Southern Baptist Convention when looking for a partner to help him plant Life Church in the Algiers community of New Orleans three years ago and said he is becoming increasingly involved in Southern Baptist life. At Ridgecrest, he has already established connections he considers valuable to the life of his ministry. "It's been the relationships that I've been able to develop, even in a short 24 hours' span of time, and just the real nuggets of wisdom that I've gleaned from other pastors who've been doing ministry longer than me, and who've given their heart, their soul," Rice said in reflecting on the most valuable aspects of the conference.
"It's been a huge blessing to be a part of the SBC," he said. "It's been a great thing to see how God is moving among the SBC, seeing the generations now, kind of touch every generation from my generation, millennials, all the way on, and then the multi-cultural aspect as well. I've been definitely blessed." Ken Weathersby, SBC Executive Committee vice president for convention advancement, likened the worth of the SBC to an African Proverb that suggests if you want to simply run fast, run alone, but if you want to run farther, run with others.
On the heels of the SBC's passage of a resolution denouncing Alt-Right white supremacy at the group's 2017 annual meeting, Weathersby encouraged conference attendees during the event's opening evening worship in Spilman Auditorium. "There will be no racism in the Southern Baptist Convention. We will not tolerate racism," Weathersby said, though not referencing the resolution. "As Dr. (Frank S.) Page said when he greeted you here last year, there will be no partiality in the SBC." Page is president of the SBC Executive Committee and has made intentional strides in including the voices of Southern Baptists of all ethnicities in policy initiatives and priorities.
Byron Day, president of the SBC's National African American Fellowship (NAAF) of 4,000 churches, described the conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the SBC as "one of the most exciting, encouraging and empowering events for black Southern Baptists." Among the 200 or so pastors, ministers and others who attended the welcoming reception NAAF hosted on the conference's opening night, about 25 were first-time attendees of the event held annually for nearly 25 years. Preliminary LifeWay figures show a total conference attendance of about 950. "The annual conference is important because it offers African American Southern Baptists the opportunity to worship and fellowship with brothers and sisters from all over the country in a familiar cultural context not available to them at similar conferences," said Day, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Laurel, Md. "The numerous training classes and activities for the entire family provide a time of rest and renewal for our pastors, church leaders and their families." Day, like others, pointed to the networking and information-sharing as beneficial. "I am very grateful to LifeWay and its partners for their commitment to this event that equips, encourages and edifies the saints," he said.
Conference convener Mark Croston, LifeWay's national director for black church partnerships, voiced excitement at the opportunity to offer the event. "Having all the SBC entities and other partners represented allows us to offer classes and experiences for all aspects of church life and something for all age groups," Croston told BP. "What really makes this event unique is that we really do have something for the entire family." With its origins in ministry to African American Southern Baptists, the conference has multicultural value, Croston said. "We are (titled) black church but not just for black church," he said. "We have many who are not black but want to share with or learn how to share with African Americans in their communities. One white family from Vermont is here. They adopted a black child and want to give him time and experiences with other black children, but it turns out they have been having as great an experience as their child."
Trillia Newbell, who addressed racial unity in her 2014 book "United: Captured By God's Vision for Diversity," told BP the conference is an opportunity for churches to gather, support, encourage and equip each other for the glory of God. She believes the SBC has made strides in racial reconciliation and has hope that Southern Baptists will continue to see progress. "I don't know of anyone who doesn't need to grow," Newbell said, moments before teaching a conference class today (July 19) encouraging women to love the unborn, unloved and neglected. "The truth is that we will not see complete restoration until Jesus comes."
The previous day at 6:45 p.m., conference attendees gathered in Spilman Auditorium for worship. Eric Geiger, vice president of LifeWay's resources division, preached on sanctification from Galatians 3:1-13. The grace of Jesus saves, sustains and sanctifies His followers, Geiger preached. Praise leader and vocalist Niya Cotton, wife of conference worship leader Roy Cotton II, sang a closing hymn, "How He Loves Us," before the benediction. For most churches, the benediction signals the end of worship, but Cotton kept singing, "He is jealous for me. Love's like a hurricane. I am the tree bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy." The "Who-So-Ever-Will Choir," a volunteer impromptu group drawn each year from conference attendees, remained on stage, praising God, singing background at times.
More than 100 of the 700 or so adults gathered for worship remained in the auditorium, singing along, raising hands, swaying, undaunted by the close of service. After 20 minutes of soulful love ballads to and about God, Cotton's father-in-law Roy Cotton Sr. joined in singing "Oh How I love Jesus." Someone shouted "hallelujah," even as the crowd dispersed and fellowshipped with conference attendees in Ridgecrest coffee shops, courtyards and other venues. The next day would begin with 6:15a.m. early morning worship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.