The Rev. W. Seth Martin, pastor of the Brook Community Church, belonged to the small minority of Southern Baptist clergy who are African American. He embraced its theology and looked beyond the denomination's historical association with slavery and racism — until now.

Martin broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) last month, landing him in the heart of fresh turmoil sweeping through the nation's largest Protestant denomination over race.

The controversy exploded after presidents of the six Southern Baptist seminaries issued a recent letter proclaiming that racial justice theories based on concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism were "incompatible" with the Baptist faith. Instead, the issue of race should be viewed through the lens of God, scripture and sin, the presidents' letter said.

"Why would they write this now?" asked Martin, whose decision has cast him in a national spotlight. "We've had the murder of George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Racial tensions. How can they talk about racial reconciliation and then do this?"

Martin's break with the Southern Baptists reflects the broader backlash sparked by the Nov. 30 statement in a denomination with nearly 15 million members and 47,000 churches, including about 100 in Minnesota. The fallout is being monitored by faith leaders across the country.

The Southern Baptist Convention, formed in 1845 after it split with northern Baptists over its support for slavery, has been working on various fronts in recent years to make amends. In 1995, it issued a formal apology for its support of segregation and slavery. In 2012, the denomination elected its first Black president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. In 2017, its annual convention denounced "alt-right white supremacy."

As it took steps toward racial reconciliation, African American membership grew to about 6% today, according to the Pew Research Center.

Pastors such as Martin were part of the denomination's efforts to increase its racial diversity and expand its presence in the north. Two years ago he launched his Brooklyn Park church under the auspices of the Southern Baptists. He admits he felt some uneasiness with the affiliation, but he was encouraged that the church was working to build multiethnic congregations.

However, the seminary presidents' letter so clearly conflicted with the reality of the life he had lived that he felt compelled to leave, Martin said. It put the spotlight on the clear divisions within a denomination, he said, and threw a wrench in the progress that was being made.

In the past month, high-profile Black Southern Baptists such as Houston megachurch pastor Ralph West — who preached at Floyd's memorial service in Houston — drew the same conclusion, ending his church affiliation with the denomination.

"I've talked to a lot of people," said Martin, who lives two blocks from the Floyd memorial. "I have friends who are preparing to leave right now. I have friends at the seminaries considering leaving. And, of course, some are staying."

The National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention also has weighed in, stating that "ideologies from a sociological and anthropological perspective when used appropriately" help better the understanding of systemic racism. And prominent denomination leaders posted a statement online calling for "collective repentance" for the mistreatment of people of color.

"The Southern Baptist Convention was founded with injustice toward African slaves at its very core," said the statement, signed by more than 230 denomination leaders. "In the current moment, we see attempts to downplay this historical reality," said the statement, which goes on to put the blame on "political maneuvering."

The presidents' letter specifically attacked "critical race theory," a framework used by scholars that examines how discriminatory public policies of the past, and present, shape the lives of minorities today. It analyzes how white supremacy and racism played out in society's core institutions, such as the criminal justice system, education, the law, health care, finance and housing.

President Donald Trump blasted the concept in September, saying it was "teaching people to hate our country." He issued a directive to federal agencies to end anti-bias training that included critical race theory or addressed white privilege.

Since relatively few Americans are even familiar with the term, much less what it means, some Black leaders question the impetus for the action by the seminary presidents.

The Rev. Billy Russell, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention and board chairman of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said the Southern Baptists had been moving in the right direction for racial reconciliation. That's why the presidents' statements caught him by surprise.

"Baptists are really disappointed," said Russell. "When I hear that pastors such as Ralph West are now leaving, it's a really big deal."

The Rev. Leo Endel, executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin [Southern] Baptist Convention, acknowledged that the recent controversy has been a setback. Endel has overseen church startups to boost Southern Baptists' presence in Minnesota, adding 10 this year, he said.

That includes 15 Hmong churches, a Korean church and a Liberian church in Brooklyn Park, which may be the state's largest.

Martin, for example, said he was invited to launch a church here and given startup funds to rent a school auditorium and equipment, plus about $1,200 a month as a stipend. Such financial incentives are an attractive way to bring new and diverse churches on board, he said.

Endel hasn't studied critical race theory. But he believes that "there is racial injustice in our world, and there are various tools to understand it."

Like the seminary leaders, he believes the best route to addressing racism is an "inner transformation," a relationship with God which in turn leads to a relationship of love with others.

The recent dispute, like others, results from the diversity of churches under the Southern Baptist umbrella, Endel believes.

"That often produces the clashes that get worked out over time," he said. "I think this will get worked out."

After several weeks of headlines and heartaches, the Rev. Adam Green­way, president of Southwestern Seminary, issued an open letter to his community on Dec. 22. He said much of the fallout was based on "inaccurate claims" and "misunderstandings." He insisted the presidents' letter was not meant to be a denial of systemic racism or a "commitment to whiteness."

The seminary presidents agreed to meet with Black leadership of the denomination this week.

Martin, meanwhile, said he had no regrets about affiliating with the Southern Baptists as he launched his church. There were some good people, offering good support and theology that rang true, he said.

But there were also undertones of racism well before the most recent controversy, said Martin, who may be looking at other Baptist denominations to join down the road. For now, his congregation will continue and move to Minneapolis.

"I feel relieved," he said. "We can go forward with our mission."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511