Walter Strickland Talks Doing Justice to Overlooked Black Theologian Charles Octavius Boothe
Editor’s note: An extended version of this interview appears in Faithfully Magazine No. 2, available in July. Get a subscription or sign up for our weekly newsletter to know when the issue becomes available.
Walter Strickland is a busy man. His list of speaking engagements stretches so long that the seminary professor spoke multiple times every month but one at churches and events in at least a dozen states last year. In 2017, Strickland has managed to restrict his engagements to just 10 months. If his nomination as the Southern Baptist Convention’s first vice president goes uncontested during the denomination’s meeting this year, Strickland’s schedule is likely to get even busier.
Former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President James Merritt announced last month that Strickland, 33, was in the running for first vice president, one of six offices established in the 15 million-strong SBC. Strickland remained the sole nominee for that role within the country’s largest Protestant denomination, which leans heavily white and older, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center.
“As our nation and our convention become more diverse, it is imperative that our leadership reflect the diversity that marks the Kingdom of God and Heaven itself. Beyond that we need people in leadership that reflect the best of Southern Baptists theologically, spiritually and personally,” Merritt said in a press release. “Walter Strickland meets both of these needs perfectly and I am excited about nominating him for the position of first vice president at our upcoming annual meeting in Phoenix.”
Strickland would be the second African-American man to hold such a high office in the denomination, after Louisiana pastor Fred Luter’s historic election as president of the SBC in 2012. Luter was also the denomination’s first Black vice president. A communications representative with the SBC Executive Committee confirmed that, if elected, Strickland would be one of the denomination’s youngest first vice presidents.
Merritt was credited with nominating Strickland, who is not only Instructor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary but also serves as Special Advisor to the President for Diversity at the Wake Forest, North Carolina, school. The Chicago-born, California-raised married father is also a diversity consultant.
Another uncontested nomination that the SBC believes reflects its push toward ethnic and racial diversity is that of Jose Abella, who could become second vice president. Abella was noted for founding Providence Road Baptist Church as a bilingual congregation in Miami, Florida, in 2010.
Both men will discover their fates when the SBC holds its annual meeting June 13–14 in Phoenix, Arizona.
In the following interview, Strickland comments on his “humbling” and historic nomination and latest project—writing the introduction to the Lexham Classics edition of Plain Theology for Plain People by Charles Octavius Boothe. Boothe was a Black, Alabama Baptist pastor born in 1845, just a month after the SBC was founded in support of slavery. The formerly enslaved self-taught theologian helped found Selma University and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, which was situated on a slave trader’s pen and took on added significance under Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership during the Civil Rights Movement. Boothe was passionate about uplifting and advancing his people, which is reflected in Plain Theology for Plain People. The book, according to Strickland, “destroys reductionist stereotypes of black faith.”
The transcript has been edited for brevity.
FM: How did you get involved in writing the introduction for the new edition of Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People by Lexham Press?
WS: I was doing research for my dissertation and I stumbled across Plain Theology for Plain People and I just said hey, someone needs to do it justice and give it the air time it needed because (Boothe) is on point and should be heard just as much as any of the other people who are considered greats who’ve done theology and who have done pastoral ministry. But because he’s a Black man, there’s an injustice at the presses and so somebody had to do it justice, and I figured why not me.
FM: Did you have to sell that argument very much to the publisher?
WS: You know what, I didn’t. I told them, “This is a gem that’s been covered up because of the racism of our past and somebody needs to step up and republish it” and they said, “We’ll do it.” It was funny, because I was pitching a different book to them called The Story of Black Christianity that they accepted. Then I said, “Hey, I’ve done a talk called ‘The History and Theology of the Black Church,’ it’s gonna be along the lines of that.” I sent them a link to it and in that I said, “Hey, I want to reprint Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People and they just jumped on it.
They’re the ones who came to me about it, and then I told them why I wanted it to be republished. It’s actually a good thing on them because they had been wanting to include other voices, especially in their Lexham Classics series. I went to them about one book and it ended up being three: the book I pitched, which is The Story of Black Christianity in America; then this book they asked for [Boothe’s Plain Theology]; and then they said they wanted me to do a reader on African-American Christianity, compiling a lot of those works that had been covered up and getting them out there. Even still, they’ve in recent days approached Jemar Tisby and they’re gonna approach Karen Ellis and others. They’ll approach several other people to do other volumes to really get a lot of the African-American Christian legacy out there. It hasn’t been out there because of the disparity of the intrigue with that work and the presses historically.
FM: What are some things you admire about Boothe’s life and legacy?
WS: As far as his life and legacy, what I personally admire is just the fact that somebody can rise up in the midst of struggle. He was born into slavery, as we said, he was disconnected from some of his family early on. There’s no mention of a father, so I assume his mother was used to birth a lot of children which was the practice back then, the continued destruction of the family and separating parents from children as chattel. Out of that, the Lord can still raise somebody up. Out of the brokenness, the Lord can still restore something. As he … gets educated, he begins to educate others to be an agent of justice in the public square, as he was dealing with some public issues there with immigration. He was dealing with justice issues in general as Jim Crow segregation came into play in a major way, as lynching was at its height in the 1890s.
So out of the ashes can come something beautiful. I think that would encourage people today as well, because people have some rough situations that they’re coming out of. The Lord can still use people in those situations to do something great. I think sometimes folks downplay the potential influence that they could have because of their current scenario or the scenario that they are born into. This book [Plain Theology for Plain People] is a great example to me about how somebody can still rise above those circumstances.
FM: On another note, you’ve been nominated as the first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. How do you feel about that?
WS: It’s humbling. I’m 33, and to have a young man being put up for a role like that that’s of a denomination of this size is rare. But really, I’m seeing this as an evidence of something happening within the life of the convention to have a young, Black male—especially in the times that we’re living in in the running for the Vice Presidency. We’re still grappling with the rumblings of Trayvon [Martin], Mike Brown and the list goes on of these incidents that are of high profile with young, Black men. I think that the convention is saying something with my nomination. … [It] seems like a very pleasant and happy glimmer when you have a person who is young, who’s Black and male in the running for this office because those three things together have a stigma in our society.
In the broader Southern Baptist landscape, some might consider me more as an intellectual because of my role at the [Southeastern Baptist Theological] seminary as a professor. Then also not to mention the work that I do at Southeastern Seminary as far as with diversity, as far as racial justice, as far as shaping, re-shaping the historical systemic injustices of our institution (and) re-situating those so that they sustain a more holistic vision and picture of the Kingdom as it relates to both race and gender on our campus. It seems very exciting that the convention as a whole would be so excited about me running for this. Hopefully, it’s a sign towards a desire for unity. Hopefully, a sign that our disposition towards minority Evangelicals is developing, and not just saying, “Hey, come and preach at our things and then go home” but actually come and sit at the table and structure these things, or restructure these things to help develop a more equitable structure, denominationally speaking, so that more types of churches can flourish. I think those are all things that excite me about it.
This article has been updated to include information regarding Strickland potentially becoming one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s youngest first vice presidents.
Read Strickland’s extended interview in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (out in July), in which he gives his take on a push for diversity in Christian spaces, controversy over a photo of Baptist seminary professors dressed as rappers, the MLK50 Conference and the new direction of his “Kingdom Diversity” podcast.