Four decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, a diverse group of pastors gathered at the historic Lorraine Hotel - now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum - to discuss the state of race relations in America, reports Baptist Press.
Called "A Time to Speak," the Dec. 15 discussion was inspired by the national debate over race relations, sparked by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.
Evangelicals have been largely missing from that conversation, said Bryan Loritts, pastor of Fellowship Memphis, a multiethnic congregation.
"Where are the conservative evangelical voices?" Loritts asked in his opening remarks to an audience of about 100 people in person and more than 6,000 viewing a webcast at live.kainos.is.
Loritts invited two diverse panels of conservative pastors and writers to Memphis for straightforward and sometimes pointed conversation about race and the church.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, served as moderator. He began by presenting new research about Americans' views on race.
A survey of 1,000 Americans found many (75 percent) say the country has come a long way on race relations, Stetzer said. But more than 8 in 10 (81 percent) agree with the statement "We've got so far to go on racial relations."
Start from the Bible, end with the Bible." The Gospel mandates reconciliation, in terms of when two people are brought to Jesus, they're brought to each other, period. That is the most important relationship on the planet ... more important than any of their blood relationships
John Piper, Desiring God ministries
African Americans in particular feel strongly about the need for change. Nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) strongly agree that relations have a long way to go. That drops to less than half (39 percent) for whites.
Loritts said whites and African Americans remain largely disconnected in churches and society, so they can't hear one another's stories.
"At the end of the day, we don't know each other," Loritts said. "We don't know each other's story."
Many relationships between whites and minorities are unequal, the panelists said. People from diverse backgrounds often don't talk to each other except when they need something. Minorities are often in a position of need, Loritts noted. Such a position distorts their relationships.
Speaking to white Christians, Lorritts said, "You need relationships with minorities who don't need you."
Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church, a multisite church in Texas, said his views on race have changed because of his friendships with African American Christians. He blogged earlier this year about white privilege, a post that sparked controversy online.
Chandler has become concerned about racial injustice because of those friendships. When injustice happens to his friends, he said, "I want to fight."
John Piper of Desiring God ministries encouraged pastors of all ethnicities to "start from the Bible, end with the Bible" to confirm multiethnic relationships.
"The Gospel mandates reconciliation, in terms of when two people are brought to Jesus, they're brought to each other, period," Piper said. "That is the most important relationship on the planet ... more important than any of their blood relationships."
Perhaps the most pointed moments of the discussion focused on systematic injustice, white privilege and the death of Michael Brown, stemming from a controversial piece Voddie Baucham, pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, had written in late November saying Brown reaped what he had sown.
During the start from the Bible, end with the Bible discussion, Baucham talked about growing up in Los Angeles during the height of the war on drugs, when tensions between police and gangs ran high. He said older women in the community pointed to gang members who were killed as a harsh warning on how not to live.
Baucham said he was told, "That's why you don't live like that" - and those warnings kept him from being caught up in gang violence. He voiced concern for those who "lionize" Brown. And he argued the idea of "white privilege" is an insult to African Americans who have overcome racism.
"I come from a proud people who have gotten there in spite of [prejudice]," he said.
Thabiti Anyabwile, a blogger and assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that many African Americans have overcome adversity. But he also said churches have to face the reality of systematic injustice.
Anyabwile described growing up in difficult circumstances and said he had been involved in criminal behavior as a young man. But God's grace changed his life.
"What I want for the Mike Browns is for them to survive their teenage years," said Anyabwile, who wore a shirt bearing the names of Emmitt Till and other young black men who died violently at the hands of white men.
Christians can play a role in creating a just society for everyone of every race, Anyabwile said. "I want us to work really hard to live up to our best ideals," he said. "I want us to work really hard to figure out and pursue justice, equality, love for neighbor."
Several panelists said change has to happen on a personal level as well as a societal and church level.
Trillia Newbell, author of "United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity," said she had been surprised by friends who reacted angrily when she talked about the racial tension in the country.
Reconciliation and conversations about race take place better out of the spotlight and away from social media, she said, recounting that someone had left a comment on her blog saying that Michael Brown "deserved" to die.
Newbell took exception to that comment. His death was still tragic, because all lives matter to God.
"He's a person. Aren't we supposed to mourn?" she asked.
The video feed from A Time to Speak was recorded and will remain available for viewing online at live.kainos.is in a partnership with LifeWay's Ministry Grid service.
Other sponsors of Tuesday's event included the Kainos Conference - which is organized by Loritts -- and The Gospel Coalition. The conversation continues on Twitter with the hashtag #ATimeToSpeak.
More information about LifeWay Research's recent report on race relations is available at LifeWayResearch.com.
Loritts said he was pleased by Tuesday's conversation and hopes it continues.