Southern Baptists expel Oklahoma church after pastor defends his blackface and Native caricatures

The Southern Baptist Convention has ousted an Oklahoma church whose pastor defended his blackface performance at one church event and his impersonation of a Native American woman at another.

The Executive Committee of the nation's largest Protestant denomination voted Tuesday that Matoaka Baptist Church of Ochelata “be deemed not in friendly cooperation with the convention” — the official terminology for an expulsion.

The church’s pastor, Sherman Jaquess, dressed in blackface for a 2017 church Valentine’s Day event, in which he claimed to be impersonating the late soul singer Ray Charles. Jaquess wore dark facial makeup, a large Afro wig and dark glasses and smiled broadly as he sang a duet. Some in the crowd can be heard laughing during the video of the performance.

The video was brought to light earlier this year by a Tulsa community activist, Marq Lewis.

Another Facebook photo, published by the Examiner-Enterprise of Bartlesville, also surfaced, showing Jaquess dressed as a Native American woman at a “Cowboys and Indians” night at a church camp. The photo shows a man dressed as a cowboy, holding an apparently fake gun to Jaquess in jest while a boy dressed as a cowboy is poised with raised fists next to him.

In a Facebook post earlier this year, Lewis wrote: “He didn’t just mimic Ray Charles, he distorted the features and culture of African Americans and also Indigenous Americans with his offensive Pocahontas caricature. He is promoting the hatred that sees African Americans and Indigenous Americans as not only different but less than. ”

Jaquess said in an interview that it's “repugnant to have people think you're a racist,” especially when he said he was paying tribute to Charles.

“If it had been done in a derogatory or hateful manner, that would be one thing, but the church was full of people. Nobody took it as a racial slur,” he said, contending that people drudged up the years-old posts after he spoke against drag shows in Bartlesville.

Jaquess, who became a Christian in a Southern Baptist church at age 13, also said that he's part Cherokee and he wasn't attempting to caricature Native people.

He said the denomination reached out a few months ago about how they would send a packet “where I would have to prove I wasn’t a racist.” Jaquess said he never received anything until Friday when notice of the pending vote and his lack of cooperation arrived. He said he called but couldn't reach anyone.

His church, he said, may appeal the ouster to the SBC's full annual meeting next year, as is its right.

Now, “I don’t know if I want to be a part of a denomination that would make a judgment about you without even talking to you,” said Jaquess, who said he committed his life to ministry in Southern Baptist churches. “The only thing I see that they do well is cash my check.”

But Lewis praised the Executive Committee's action.

“For him (Jaquess) to not apologize, and double down on it, to me I felt this is a pastor that needed to be exposed,” Lewis said in an interview. “I’m grateful that the Southern Baptist organization said, ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with this.’”

Blackface performances date back to minstrel shows of the 1800s, in which performers darkened their faces to create bigoted caricatures of Black people.

Since Southern Baptist churches are independent, the convention can’t tell a church what to do or whom to have as a pastor, but it can oust a church from its membership.

The SBC's constitution says a church can only be deemed in friendly cooperation if, among other things, it “does not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”

The conservative denomination has in recent years expelled churches for various reasons — most prominently Saddleback Church, the California megachurch ousted earlier this year for having women pastors.

In 2018 and 2022, the Executive Committee ousted a Georgia church and a New Jersey congregation amid concerns over alleged discriminatory behavior.

Other reasons for ouster include a failure to address sexual abuse and for acting to “endorse homosexual behavior.”

Separately, the committee faced its third leadership setback in a matter of months when its anticipated appointment of an interim president fell through.

Retired Kentucky pastor Dan Summerlin, who had been recommended by the committee's officers, withdrew his candidacy, saying Tuesday that he wouldn't have time for the job while caring for his wife during cancer treatment.

The committee was meeting for the first time since its interim president, Tennessee pastor Willie McLaurin, resigned in August after it came to light that he had falsified his educational credentials on his resume. McLaurin had been the leading candidate to become the permanent president after the committee failed to approve the nomination of its former chairman, Jared Wellman, as president in May.

The committee said in a statement Tuesday that based on an internal investigation, it concluded that “McLaurin engaged in both academic and professional fraud.” But it said no evidence was found “of wrongdoing or direct financial harm to the Executive Committee.” It did not elaborate.

“While the Executive Committee acknowledges the collateral, reputational harm and indirect financial impact resulting from McLaurin’s misrepresentations, the Executive Committee does not plan to proceed with taking any legal action against McLaurin at this time,” it said.

Jonathan Howe, who as vice president had been serving in the interim role, will continue that role, according to the committee.

The job of the chief executive involves leading the day-to-day business of the committee, which acts on behalf of the convention when its annual meeting is not in session. The previous permanent president, Ronnie Floyd, resigned amid turmoil over the Executive Committee’s handling of a third-party investigation into how the committee addressed sexual abuse reports.

Amid tight finances, the committee recently cut five full-time staff positions and two contractor positions.


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