Filling a Tall Order

With a message that’s modern in style but traditional in substance, Pastor David Uth has led First Baptist Church of Orlando to embrace a multicultural outlook—and has become a strong voice in favor of immigration reform.

As the lanky, middle-aged pastor lopes onto the stage at First Baptist Church of Orlando and heads toward the podium, thousands of worshipers instinctively lean forward for a better look. But they don’t really need to. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, David Uth is clearly visible even from the nosebleed section of the church’s cavernous sanctuary, his presence looming even larger on the Jumbotron screen above him. Dressed in a gray suit and wearing a headset mic, Uth begins this recent Sunday morning’s presentation with his vision for a rapidly changing city.

First he introduces a polished video featuring a Hispanic couple who were unable to conceive. They explain how the congregation helped them adopt two African American sisters. When the woman became pregnant their joy was multiplied, adding a third daughter to their home. The intended message is clear: This church helps build and support multicultural families. While people are still dabbing their eyes, Uth makes a soft-spoken pitch for donations to help make more stories like this come true, and the offering plates are passed. 

The pastor addresses his flock on a Sunday morning. The congregation has grown from 14,000 members when Uth arrived eight years ago to 17,000 today, with 1,000 of those being Hispanic.

Then the sermon begins. Orlando, the pastor tells his congregation, is “our Jerusalem,” and it should be ground zero of the church’s mission efforts. The delivery is low key—Uth never raises his voice—but he is energetic, striding back and forth across the stage. To make a point he gestures with his index finger, or addresses the congregation as “Guys.” Often he places a hand over his heart. 

It is vintage David Uth (pronounced “youth’’). The 57-year-old pastor is habitually self-deprecating, often making himself the butt of humorous anecdotes. When something stern or difficult has to be said, Uth says it almost in sorrow, or regret. In this, there are echoes of his beloved predecessor, Jim Henry, but it is in no way an imitation. Uth doesn’t exhort so much as he explains, urges and encourages, almost always in an earnest, cheerful way. When he talks about things he doesn’t like, it’s more in disappointment than in anger. He cites a recent Pew Center survey that found that 40 percent of Millennials reported that Christians “get on their nerves.” It’s true, Uth admits. Sometimes “we don’t act like Jesus. We act like jerks.”

It is a message that is modern in style but traditional in substance, perfectly pitched for the Sunbelt suburbs of the 21st century. And the messenger is the complete opposite of the last century’s fire-and-brimstone, Bible-thumping Southern Baptist preacher stereotype. Uth has grown his predominantly white and overwhelmingly conservative congregation in part by taking a dramatic turn toward multiculturalism, infusing it with newcomers from Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, he has emerged on the national stage with other evangelical leaders calling for compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform. He’s been able to navigate this course—so far—by maintaining a balance between bedrock Baptist faith and the challenges of contemporary times.

The message of inclusion clearly resonates in the pews. Dennis Fitzgerald, who was raised Catholic, was attracted to First Baptist four years ago after watching Uth preach on its regular Sunday broadcasts on WFTV-Channel 9. Soon, he asked Uth to baptize him and, subsequently, other members of his extended family. “I like his honesty. I like the way he delivers a message,” says Fitzgerald, 50. “He’s been a good pastor for the church. He’s made the church grow. ” 

Before heading to Faith Hall to meet parishioners, who on this Sunday are visiting exhibition booths for First Baptist’s scores of specialized ministries, Uth steps down from the sanctuary stage to greet a handful of people informally. There are hugs and brief cheek kisses for women, and hands on the shoulders for the men, whom he often addresses as “Man.” Most, literally, have to look up to him, but it is clearly not just his height. 

“He is such a blessing to Orlando,” says Kalyn Guill, 21, her eyes still shining after a brief conversation. “I don’t know what we would do without him.”

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Even in his size 13 lace-ups, David Uth knew he would have some big shoes to fill after leaving West Monroe, Louisiana, with wife Rachel and their three children in 2006 to take the pulpit at First Baptist. Jim Henry had led the congregation from its historic downtown location to its sprawling campus on L.B. McLeod Road, and helped build it into one of the largest mega-churches in Central Florida. In the process, the similarly soft-spoken, moderate Henry emerged as one of the most influential churchmen in Greater Orlando. As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he sought—with mixed results—to mute some of the denomination’s more controversial stands, in particular the boycott of Disney theme parks and products, prompted by the entertainment giant’s decision to provide health benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. The boycott—which both Henry and Uth opposed—was an economic failure and a public relations disaster for Southern Baptists.

Uth prays with two members of his congregation after a Sunday service. Concerning the roots of his church’s multicultural outreach, the pastor says: “We wanted to look like Orlando, and Orlando is diverse.’’ 

As tall as Henry is compact, Uth has by most accounts done quite well in the eight years since he assumed leadership at First Baptist, being more than just a good steward. “Jim set the stage for David’s ministry,” says Dan Brown, a former deacon and trustee who was close to Henry. “Jim passed along his vision of what God can do when people open their minds. Their styles are similar. They have different ways of saying the same thing. Both have that look in their eye that when you’re speaking to them they want to hear you.” And Uth’s congregation, in turn, remains eager to hear what he has to say: Membership at First Baptist has grown from about 14,000 when he arrived to 17,000, including 4,000 baptisms. 

Among the worshipers listening most attentively on Sunday mornings are those scattered throughout the sanctuary who are wearing headsets for simultaneous translations. This is no accident. Uth says the biggest surprise to him in recent years—a pleasant one—has been the congregation’s growing diversity.

 At first, it just happened; then the church’s leaders became more intentional about outreach. “We wanted to look like Orlando, and Orlando is diverse,” Uth says. The first influx was from Brazilian worshipers, but there are now eight language ministries. Whether he is heard in English, Spanish or Portuguese (and soon Haitian Creole), Uth preaches a Bible-based gospel of optimism and uplift. However, when immigrants, some undocumented, began attending church, “that issue all of a sudden had a face,” Uth recalls. “These are people’s lives, this is not a number … My heart was broken.” 

Yet he was also encouraged—and saw his road ahead—when Matthew Soerens, co-author of the book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate, came to speak at one of First Baptist’s Sunday night forums in 2012. Today, in addition to the simultaneous translation in the main services, there are separate meetings and services, as well as free weekly language and citizenship classes. “All people matter to God,” Uth told the Orlando Sentinel last year. “Our church is a very compassionate church, and it’s only natural we would get involved in this.”

 The fruit of social justice has not fallen far from the Uth family tree. In 1912, Gus Uth, David’s grandfather, arrived at Ellis Island from Denmark, where he had worked as a house painter and artist. Somehow he found his way to Oxford, Mississippi, where he befriended a cranky aspiring writer named William Faulkner, who bought a number of his paintings. Already an atheist, the racism Gus Uth encountered provoked him into joining the Communist Party, one of the few groups in the South at that time, apart from the NAACP, that fought inequality. “If this is democracy, I don’t want anything to do with it,” Gus would explain, according to family lore. For the rest of his life Gus Uth remained resolute in his ideology and his disbelief. But Gus’ son, Anton, a machine worker and carpenter, chose a radically different path. Anton was delivered from drink and gambling through accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He chose the ministry as a second career, even though he had to work three jobs to afford college and Southern Baptist divinity school.

Still, the son was no less committed to social justice than his father. In the mid-1970s, Anton earned a visit from the local Ku Klux Klan when he integrated his Arkansas church, a stand that ultimately forced him from his pulpit, never to be called to another church that size. “My dad took a stand to permit blacks to come to our church in Pine Bluff, and it cost him, and caused a lot of conflict from the deacons,” David Uth told me in a 2005 interview for the Sentinel. “I watched my dad walk through that courageously, and it left a deep impression on me. . . . There is nothing worse than trying to use scripture to justify racism.”

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When President George W. Bush first proposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, some leaders of predominantly white evangelical denominations, reflecting their base, opposed it—some vociferously. But upon further consideration—and under pressure from Hispanic and African American evangelical leaders—a majority found scriptural and moral reasons to reverse their initial position, supporting comprehensive reform and a path to legalization. By 2013, they were meeting in Washington, D.C., as part of a new group called The Evangelical Immigration Table. Uth’s participation attracted the attention of The New York Times in an April 13, 2013, article headlined “For Evangelicals, a Shift in Views on Immigration.” The story began in the pews of First Baptist, focusing on Uth as an example of a new cohort of evangelical leaders who, after “consulting their Bibles,” are taking a new look at the issue. For Uth, the story said, “there was no mistaking the evolution of his traditionally white congregation, as he discovered in recent years that immigrants speaking at least 32 different languages had flocked to his doors.” Momentum on the issue, Uth told the reporter, is growing.

The pastor and wife Rachel with their family: From left, daughter Hanna, son Joshua, and son Andrew with his wife, Kayla.

This national attention gave him a “weird feeling,” Uth admits. “We were being very true to ourselves. It was not a stunt.” It was only by dint of his own grandfather’s immigration that Uth was given the opportunities he’s had. But some negative reaction from other members of his denomination left him feeling awkward and frustrated. He considers himself a consensus builder who doesn’t like wedge issues. By contrast, his own congregation has been “incredibly supportive,” although a few older members did quit. 

As a self-described member of that GOP base, parishioner Dan Brown admits that initially, he was skeptical of Uth’s changes. “I’ve had to learn to accept the fact that Orlando is an international city, and that our church is an international church. Now we have cultures and races of all kinds …We’re Christians first and foremost,” he says, comparing today’s First Baptist to the United Nations. The change has led to “an explosion in our membership.’’ Church officials estimate that the congregation now has 1,000 Hispanic members, and that at any given Sunday service there are 600 Spanish and Portuguese speakers. Approximately 85 percent of First Baptist’s new members come from non-Baptist backgrounds—from Catholics, mainline Protestants and Greek Orthodox to previously non-affiliated.

Uth’s involvement in the immigration reform issue couldn’t have come at a more critical time, says the Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood’s Northland Church, another evangelical, mega-church pastor deeply involved in the Evangelical Immigration Table. “As the largest conservative evangelical denomination in the United States, leadership voices in the Southern Baptist church could influence how millions of initially resistant Americans view immigration reform,” he observed. “David Uth is at the point of that leadership.”

In the months that followed the Times story, Uth was featured in radio ads in Florida and more than a dozen other states, sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table. While some Southern Baptists grumbled, Uth’s move on immigration was not an entirely new direction for the denomination. In 1995, it had confronted its dark history on race, voting to apologize for its support of slavery and segregation dating back more than 150 years. (Jim Henry, who had been a young pastor in Mississippi during the civil rights movement and long voiced regret for his failure to speak out forcefully against white supremacy, was a strong backer of the resolution.) And for years, First Baptist has paired itself with local African American congregations. 

Still, in stepping out on immigration reform, Uth was taking a risk. A poll taken in June by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that among all religious groups, white evangelical Protestants—still the overwhelming majority of First Baptist’s members—lagged behind other religious groups in their support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. So for Uth, that became one of the congregation’s chief missions. 

“Social work is the cutting edge of the church,” he says of the congregation’s outreach to immigrants and newcomers. The result, he says, is “the most rewarding and enriching diversity.”

Uth has gradually reached out beyond his congregation on a spectrum of issues, serving two terms as president of the Florida Baptist Convention, where he called for the denomination to become more diverse. He opposes abortion, but has not made a crusade of it beyond First Baptist’s pregnancy ministry, which emphasizes adoption. Since 1989, he has been active in multi-faith efforts, most recently fighting against homelessness, human trafficking—especially the sex trade—sometimes in coalitions that include groups that do not share his conservative positions on issues like reproductive rights. 

“I frustrate people because I’m not easy to pigeonhole,” Uth says. He compares his leadership style to two hands stretching a rubber band. Without any tension it’s no good. Too much, and it snaps. So, what is the secret? Strengthen the rubber band, he says. Thus, when the Boy Scouts decided to admit gay members, First Baptist did not join other Southern Baptist Convention congregations in leaving the young people’s organization. “We were disappointed, but we weren’t going to walk away.” For some SBC leaders, Uth says, the “definition of righteousness is how many fights you’re in.”

Although he opposes gay marriage, Uth has made a conscious decision to keep his congregation’s doors open to all, without condition. “We’re going to love everyone,’’ he says. He acknowledges the national sea change on attitudes toward gay marriage and homosexuality, one that has carried over to evangelicals under 30, according to recent surveys. Still, he adds, “We hope that through hearing biblical truth, there will be life change.” 

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Almost every Wednesday, at noon, Uth meets with about a dozen men for a gathering called a “discipleship” group. The room, in the church’s office wing, is nondescript—brown walls, dark brown tables arranged in a square, with padded aqua chairs arrayed around the periphery, so everyone faces one another. The men, mostly white and middle-aged or older, arrive and take boxed stacked lunches from a table along the wall, along with bottles of water with “First Baptist Orlando” on the labels. They turn off their cell phones and chat, waiting for Uth to arrive, usually from a meeting down the hall. 

Uth listens to a member of his discipleship group at one of their Wednesday gatherings. 

On this spring day the pastor is wearing gray slacks, an Oxford blue shirt open at the collar, and a darker blue sport coat. He works his way around the room, greeting and shaking hands with the men, all informally dressed, before taking his place at the front side of the square. At first the mood is relaxed, almost jocular. Some of those in the room share Uth’s recreational outlets: hunting, fishing and golf. They are also an informal focus group for candid sermon reviews. “This is where I can let my hair down and be what I am,” he explains. It’s a meeting of equals, but Uth is clearly the first among them.

After they finish eating, Uth goes around the room asking for blessings experienced the previous week, and for personal prayer requests from the group. A story about a beautiful deep sea fishing trip in Costa Rica from JR Davis prompts Uth to observe, “God did a wonderful thing when he created this world.” Another story about a New England skiing trip segues into a request for prayers involving a family crisis. Uth talks about how, in life, things may go well and poorly simultaneously, as if on two parallel tracks. The true measure of faith, he says, is how you cope when people you care about fall.

 Some of the men talk about challenges in their professional lives. Dr. L. Kyle Bow, one of the younger men, talks about his new pediatric urgent care facility. He wants to establish sick daycare for single working mothers, even though it’s unlikely to generate enough revenue to support itself. But the moms may lose their jobs if they stay home to care for their children. “They get fired because they’re dispensable,” he says. 

Bow, 34, of Orlando, is grateful for the advice and guidance he has gotten from the group. “I have found a family,” he says. “We’re just a bunch of sinners. We’re just in there to encourage one another.” While Uth, a man known for his many personal, spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, is more frank and intimate in the group, Bow says, the pastor’s “heart, his character, his presence are all exactly what you would see on stage.” 

Later, I ask Uth what he thinks his Communist grandfather and late Southern Baptist father would say, if by some miracle they could walk into First Baptist’s sanctuary and see him on that stage. Well, he says, he thinks they would look around at the many races and nationalities and be impressed—even old atheist Gus. 

Indeed, looking up at the pulpit at their son and grandson, they also might both agree with a verse from the Book of Matthew: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” 

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