NEW ORLEANS -
Robert West didn't know the racist history of the Southern Baptist Convention when he joined one of its handful of African-American congregations more than 30 years ago.
But even after he learned the SBC was founded in 1845 by white men who defended slavery as biblical, West continued to embrace his new and flawed family of faith.
"Black, white, didn't matter to me. I was a bigot, too," said West, now pastor of that Memphis congregation called One Faith Fellowship Baptist Church. "I figured if they can accept me, I can accept them."
That growing mutual acceptance was affirmed by the SBC's 1995 formal apology "to all African-Americans" and repented for the role slavery and racism played in its founding 150 years before.
Today at the SBC's annual meeting, the nation's largest Protestant body will take another big step toward reconciliation.
West and thousands of other delegates are expected to elect Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to become the 166-year-old denomination's first African-American president.
"Electing Fred will send a great message to the church and the world," said West, who has known Luter more than 25 years. "The message is that the Southern Baptist Convention is serious about racial reconciliation."
West and Luter are pastors of two of the SBC's estimated 3,500 African-American congregations -- a number that has nearly doubled in the past 15 years.
Luter, 55-year-old pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward, preached in the prominent Monday evening slot here at the SBC's annual Pastor's Conference, which precedes the annual two-day meeting.
"It's a new day in the Southern Baptist Convention," Luter told PBS earlier. "Our doors are open to each and every body."
West and Luter both remember when those doors were closed to African-Americans.
Both men grew up in African-American denominations formed as a result of pre-Civil War racial exclusions -- black Methodist for Wells, black Baptist for Luter.
Luter, the third of five children raised by a single mother, drifted away from church after high school. A near-fatal motorcycle accident brought him back to God in his early 20s. He preached on New Orleans street corners for years.
In 1986, Luter became pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist, a struggling black Southern Baptist church that had been all-white until the 1970s when whites began moving out of the neighborhood. The congregation talked about leaving the SBC to join a black Baptist denomination, but Luter persuaded the congregation to stay.
"I knew this convention had a heart for evangelism," Luter said later.
That's the reason West joined Lamar Terrace Baptist Church in Memphis, the city's first black Southern Baptist congregation. Formed in the 1950s as a mission of Cherokee Baptist, the 300-member congregation later changed its name and moved into the old Kensington Baptist Church in Parkway Village in 2005.
Today, 20 of the 160 Southern Baptist churches in the Mid-South Baptist Association are predominantly African-American.
"I found the Southern Baptists to be about teaching and reaching people for Christ," said West, who became pastor of Lamar Terrace in 1985.
"There's not a lot of emotionalism, which I like. It's a more practical approach to the gospel."
Wells, the eighth of 15 children, was raised by his father's cousin. "I was born in Orange Mound but raised everywhere else," West said. "I had a drug problem. They drug me to church every Sunday."
He still remembers the day when he was 8 and his mother took him to the Memphis Zoo. A white man made him give his place on a ride to a little white girl. "My mom cried. It hurt me real bad," West said. "I carried that hurt with me a long time. I didn't trust anyone who was white."
Like Luter, West left the church after he graduated from high school. He became a truck driver, then got a job in Iowa, where he and his wife, Jeanette, met and befriended Richard Murk, a white man who had grown up at Leawood (Southern) Baptist Church in Memphis.
"I'd told God that if you're real, show me one white person who was really a good person and a good Christian," West said. "He showed me Richard."
When West and his wife returned to Memphis in the early 1980s, he found his way to Lamar Terrace. There he was mentored by pastor Ben Young, the city's first black Southern Baptist pastor.
"Ben showed me that I was a bigot, too," said Wells. "We all need forgiveness."
African-Americans represent about a million of the SBC's more than 15 million U.S. members, but Luter and West both believe that number will continue to go up, despite the SBC's lingering image as a bastion of white, conservative evangelicals.
"A lot of people don't understand why I'm not a black Baptist," West said with a chuckle. "Well, I am a Baptist and I am black. But I hope one day we won't be color-coded. I don't think heaven is."
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