NASHVILLE — Ed Litton would have been happy remaining a local church pastor.
Instead, Litton finds himself leading the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. as it faces continued divisions over race, a sex abuse crisis and the role of women in ministry.
Litton, elected Tuesday as the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is seen by many as a pastor who can help Southern Baptists unite and avoid an exodus of minority members worried about whether they have a future home in the conservative denomination.
"I think in some ways, I was ready to go home," he told reporters Tuesday night. "I told my church last week, I said, 'If next Wednesday morning I wake up and I'm just your pastor, I am so good with that.' The highest honor of my life is to pastor a local church. But I also have a deep burden for people that I love. And I want to do whatever I can to help us pull this together. I'm not Superman. I have no magic.
"But I know this person and his name is Jesus. And they know him, too. And so I think we can find that common ground."
Who is Litton? Here's what you need to know about the Alabama pastor.
Where does Ed Litton pastor?
Litton, 62, is senior pastor at Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, outside Mobile.
He holds a bachelor's degree in religion and theater from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, a master of divinity from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a doctorate of divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
He spent the early years of his ministry in Texas and Arizona before moving to Alabama, where he's been the senior pastor at Redemption since 1994.
He served as the Southern Baptist Convention's first vice president from 2001-02.
How did he get into the ministry?
Litton said he didn't grow up going to church.
"I was in a home with alcohol that ruled our family. My parents' marriage was dissolving," Litton said. "I was about 7 or 8 years old when a Southern Baptist pastor connected with my dad and began engaging him with the gospel."
He said his dad wasn't ready. But the pastor kept pressing in, loving his dad and inviting him to church. "The day came where everything seemed to unravel like cheap sweater, and my dad cried out to God," Litton said.
"My dad was delivered and set free, which is absolutely impossible to happen, apart from God. And I knew from that point on – that didn't instantly change my life – but I had a front row seat on a miracle, and I knew that change had taken place."
He said he gave his life to Christ and became a church planter after he went to seminary and began working in Tucson, Arizona.
What about his family story?
Litton was married to Tammy Litton for 25 years. She died in August 2007 in a car accident. They have three children, Josh, Tyler and Kayla.
In 2009, he married Kathy Ferguson, who was married to a Baptist pastor in Denver. Her husband also died in an accident.
"They had an amazing life and an amazing ministry that spread all over the state of Colorado, and he was killed in a car accident when they were on a family vacation," Litton said.
"We were about the same age when these things happened in our lives. And it alters the course of your life. In many ways, you think your life's going a certain direction when all of the sudden everything seems to change and you're out of control. So we both have a profound sense of pain, suffering in our life that has changed us. And I think it's changed us far for the better.
"We love to tell people the story that there is a God who loves us, and he doesn't, doesn't go distant in the most painful things in life."
His wife serves as director of planter spouse development for the North American Mission Board, the convention organization that helps churches reach and serve in their communities and beyond.
What is Ed Litton's work on race?
Over the past six years, Litton has been involved with a coalition called the Pledge Group. It's a group of leaders from different racial, religious and vocational backgrounds who want to bridge the racial divide in Mobile.
Litton also helped write, according to the Baptist Press, the "Deep South Joint Statement on the Gospel, Racial Reconciliation, and Justice.”
The statement, signed by a diverse group of church leaders in Mobile, Montgomery and Charleston, S.C., came in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
"The pain, the fear, and the trauma in our communities revealed a division that many hoped had been relegated to the past," the statement read. "We realize that the problems we face are broad, the division caused by sin goes deep, and the hearts and souls of our neighbors remain profoundly and justly hurt by this sin. To ignore this, or hope it will go away, is to become the indifferent priest in the Parable of the Good Samaritan."
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"We believe that every person no matter what their color, culture, or creed is made in the image of God and because of that they have infinite worth, value, and dignity," the statement continued.
At one point, the statement said that church leaders too often focused more on "keeping things comfortable than on making things right."
The statement said they believe that Jesus mandates Christians work toward a "reconciliation that is centered on his redemptive work for humanity" and that too often people of color alone carried the burden of working toward racial unity.
How will he bridge the racial divide?
In speaking to reporters Tuesday, Litton said much growth in Southern Baptist churches over the past three decades has come from minority members.
"Asian American groups, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, they are growing at a rate of 232%, while our Anglo congregations are in decline," Litton said.
"So we are grateful for them. They make up a significant number of who we are. So yes, the first thing I say is, we want you here. We love you here. We can't reach every man, woman, boy and girl in this nation without you here.
"And I'm just so grateful for my brothers and sisters in Christ, of color, and I'm so thankful for them. We have much to learn from them."
Litton said his approach is a "Gospel-centered" one.
"What's my motivation for doing it? It's not to be hip or cool. It's not to even catch up with the times," he said. "My goal is to say, 'Jesus, how would you have me to treat my neighbor?'”
Litton recalled the parable in the Bible of the Good Samaritan.
"When we see in our communities people that are suffering or are hurting, we need to stop our busy lives and we need to help them. It's just that simple. It's just that basic and I think that is the cure."
He said would encourage Southern Baptists to "get out of the bubble" and ask God to open their eyes to what is going on in their community
With the Pledge Group, Litton said the members take simple steps.
"We make a pledge that is so simple, and it seems so small. But we smile," he said. "We smile at people that may not look like us, think like us or vote like us."
In the days after Floyd's death, Litton recalls going to Costco and seeing a Black man in line in front of him. The two ended up parked next to each other, Litton said.
"He looked at me and he just said, ‘I got to talk to someone.’ And he just started pouring his heart out, how broken he was and how tired he was of these things," Litton recalled. "And we just stood there. And for one moment, a beautiful moment, it was not a Black guy talking to a white guy. It was two men who were deeply concerned about their culture, deeply concerned about the community they live in and just finding commonality."
He said that type of experience doesn't just help the overall culture.
"It helps us be the people God called us to be," Litton said.
Contributing: The Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Southern Baptist Convention: Meet Ed Litton, newly elected president