Nov. 10, 2015, turned out to be an historic date for Kentucky Baptists. The first African American president was elected during their annual meeting at Severns Valley Baptist Church in Elizabethtown. Don’t miss the historical significance of the venue either: the oldest Baptist congregation in the commonwealth.
Kevin Smith, indeed, is a very capable and deserving choice to lead Kentucky Baptists. He serves on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a preaching professor, and he is on the ministerial staff of Louisville’s Highview Baptist Church. Previously, he has leadership experience as a vice president for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Adjectives such as committed, passionate, dynamic, intellectual and servant-heart come readily. One can only hope that this momentous election will mark the first of many to come.
Lest we miss the significance of this occasion in race relations, only five decades ago our nation was in the midst of a horrendous struggle with integration and civil rights. As a child of the 60s, I can recall race riots in front of the elementary school in my small, southern town where hostile mobs tore up a school bus. As a teenager, I can recall creating “an issue” when I invited some black guys to join a pick-up game on our church’s basketball courts.
Though tragic in tone, a 1962 editorial by Chauncey Daley provides a good study in contrast. Daley shared his painful experience after attending a Kentucky Baptist Student Union Convention in Lexington. On the program that evening was Henry Q. Taylor, secretary of Health Services for the nation of Liberia.
A great humanitarian, Taylor had come to tell students about Operation Brothers Brother II, in which teams of doctors had given their time and services on an errand of mercy to eradicate small pox in the West African nation through mass inoculations. He had been invited by Robert Hingston, a medical doctor and member of First Baptist Church of Cleveland, who had invented a “peace gun” used to rapidly inject serum into the arms of patients.
On the way to the convention, Taylors’ airplane had been rerouted to Louisville because of fog, and he did not have time to eat before speaking to the students. And, the privilege of being in the company of these two great humanitarians turned to humiliation for Daley on the way back to Louisville that evening. Daley writes:
“The first eating place open as we journeyed toward Louisville was in Frankfort. As we walked into this place, it never occurred to me that one of us had different color skin. In fact, from the moment that I met this great person I was never aware of his color. But I was suddenly jarred to reality when I saw the anguished face of the waitress when we sat down.”
The restaurant owner refused to serve a black person, so they continued on to their hotel in Louisville, arriving after 1:15 a.m. Taylor had not eaten in 18 hours, so the men went looking for an all-night diner.
“Feeling certain it was all right, but wishing to avoid any scene, I went in ahead to ask about service,” Daley continues. “Again, the man in charge shook his head saying the boss had left orders not to feed any black customers.” Two candy bars were all the food a famous humanitarian had on his first visit to Kentucky.
“I felt like crying,” Daley writes, “not for Taylor who smiled through it all, but for Kentuckians who apparently never, read, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13:2).”
Yes, that was long ago, and strides have been made. Even so, we still have a long way to go in our society and in our congregations in regards to racial reconciliation. Yet Lincoln Bingham, well-known as a race-relations pioneer in Kentucky, was right when, in nominating Smith, he declared, “The Kentucky Baptist Convention is ready for the first African American president.”
We should all rejoice in a momentous step taken by Kentucky Baptists in recognizing the worth and service of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are of a different race or ethnicity. May Kevin Smith’s election indeed signal the dawn of a “day of inclusion.”