ATLANTA (ABP) — Fifteen thousand participants in the New Baptist Covenant convocation arrived in Atlanta Jan. 30 seeking unity in Christ and departed Feb. 1 wondering where their quest will lead.
In the meantime, they demonstrated racial, theological and geographic harmony as they prayed, sang, listened to sermons and attended workshops focusing on ministry to the people Jesus called "the least of these" in society.
The unprecedented event brought together African-American, Anglo, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists. They represented 30 Baptist conventions and organizations, all affiliated with the North American Baptist Fellowship, the regional affiliate of the Baptist World Alliance. They also heard from two former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and a former vice president, Al Gore-all Baptists.
Participants scaled a 163-year-old wall that has divided the denomination since U.S. Baptists parted company over slavery more than a decade before the Civil War.
As women and men of numerous races sat side-by-side through sermons and hugged and laughed in hallways, they embodied a dream-come-true for Baptists who dreamed of racial reconciliation in their denomination.
"This is the most momentous event of my religious life," declared an emotional Carter, a son of the South and a lifelong Baptist.
"For the first time in more than 160 years, we are convening a major gathering of Baptists throughout an entire continent, without any threat to our unity caused by differences of our race or politics or geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scripture," said Carter, who co-chaired the gathering with Mercer University President Bill Underwood.
Carter's euphoria echoed the aspiration of another Baptist from Georgia, and the convocation fulfilled the prophecy of Martin Luther King Jr., Underwood told the crowd.
"Forty-five years ago, a native son of Atlanta, a Baptist pastor, shared with all of us his dream: One day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," Underwood said to sustained applause.
"Today, here on those red hills of Georgia, Baptists have come together to take a step in the long and difficult journey toward achieving Dr. King's great dream. After generations of putting up walls between us-separation, division by geography, by theology, but most of all division by race-a new day is dawning. — Today, we all sit down together at the table of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood."
Leaders of most of the participating groups first affirmed the New Baptist Covenant in April 2006, when Carter and Underwood invited them to Atlanta to talk about bridging Baptists' racial, theological and geographic divisions by working together "to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity."
That effort piggybacked on a historic gathering of the four predominantly African-American Baptist conventions five years ago, plus ongoing discussions of unity within the North American Baptist Fellowship, NABF President David Goatley said.
"The New Baptist Covenant is a public witness to our common commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed," explained Goatley, executive secretary of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention.
"Never before have Baptists on this scale sought to cross the boundaries we choose to live behind-ethnicity, ideology, theology. Never before have Baptists on this scale sought to explore ministries of this impact. Never before have Baptists on this scale come together for cooperation and collaboration for missional ministry impact.
"We are at the threshold of great possibilities," Goatley said.
Prior to the convocation, critics suggested one of those possibilities was politics.
They claimed organizers stacked the program in favor of Democrats, citing the presence not only of Carter, but also Clinton and Gore. Carter refuted that charge in a news conference, noting the all-Baptist program also featured Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Organizers invited Republican presidential candidate and former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, who accepted and then declined months ago, as well as Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who bowed out at the last minute to campaign for another presidential candidate who attends a Baptist church, John McCain.
In the convocation's opening session, Carter made a promise that also sounded like a warning to all the other speakers. Imploring the diverse Baptists to make unity the distinctive element of their gathering, he pledged, "There will be no criticism of others-let me say again-no criticism of others or exclusion of any Christians who would seek to join this cause."
Near the end of the meeting, he told reporters the convocation lived up to his nonpolitical billing. "We have deliberately avoided any identification by politics," he declared. "It's been a wonderful mixture of cohesive, different groups. All of us, so far as I know, have been completely unified."
"Unity in Christ" provided the convocation's theme. Plenary sessions focused on creating Baptist unity by following Jesus' mandate set out in his first sermon: "to preach good news to the poor — to proclaim freedom and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Clinton, the closing speaker, called for unity toward a group with which many of the other participants disagree-the Southern Baptist Convention.
The SBC pulled out of the Baptist World Alliance-the organizational common denominator for all the groups affiliated with the New Baptist Covenant-several years ago, citing alleged "liberalism."
Clinton described the rift with the SBC as competing interpretations of the New Testament Epistle of James, "that people would know our faith by our works."
Baptists who gained control of the SBC focused on "works" related to issues such as opposition to abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights, he noted, while "more progressive Baptists" focused on fighting poverty, protecting the environment and providing housing for poor people, he said.
"I say this in good conscience: We all believe we are doing what we can. But so do they. They read the obligations of Scripture in a different way," he noted.
Calling for humility and respect, Clinton urged, "We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us or even how they treat people we care for. If there is any chance that this covenant can become an embracing one, that there can be a whole community, then there has to be a chance that we can find love."
Other speakers amplified the unity theme from a range of perspectives:
— Christian oneness centers on fulfilling Jesus' "radical mission," stressed William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the four African-American conventions, and pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
Jesus wasn't satisfied merely to bring relief to the persecuted and victimized, he explained, noting Jesus "concretized" his mission by seeking to reverse the structures and situations that caused oppression.
The heart of that quest is establishing justice and uprooting injustice, Shaw noted. "When God made mankind, he made us male and female-in his image. To do injustice to anybody is to do injustice to the reality of God, because we are in his image, and his image is not to be demeaned."
That calls Baptists to seek change in society, he added. "You can't embrace the mission of Jesus and not encounter the reality of injustice. He came not with actions of charity. He came to change. — Justice says we need to change the structures of victimization."
— Unfortunately, the Baptist name is associated with exclusion, observed novelist John Grisham, a member of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va. "The reason is because, for so long, so many Baptists have worked so hard to exclude so many," he said.
Grisham offered Baptists three suggestions for seeking unity: Restore their good name by respecting diversity, stay out of politics and "spend as much time out on the streets in ministry as in the church."
"Jesus preached more and taught more about helping the poor and the sick and the hungry than he did about heaven and hell. Shouldn't that tell us something?" he asked.
— Love is the key to unity, claimed Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga. She accepted an assignment to speak on respecting diversity, but she said respect isn't sufficient to build unity.
Respect alone "has no power to change something that is broken between you and me," she said. "Only love can do that. — Let love take you by the hand and lead you like a child to a new way of seeing that brother or sister, and look for Jesus in the face of that person," she said.
— Marian Wright Edelman called for Baptists to unify around protecting children. She cited a litany of statistics that reveal the depth of poverty, neglect and risk that describe the United States' 13 million children in poverty, noting they add up to a national catastrophe.
"They are not acts of God," said Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. "They are our choices as citizens and as a nation. We created them; we can and must change them."
Churches "ought to be the locomotive, and not the caboose, in speaking up for children," she said.
— Baptists could express their unity by giving themselves-and their means-to rescue the poor, Tony Campolo said.
Jesus pronounced his priorities in Luke 4, beginning with preaching good news to the poor, noted Campolo, author and professor emeritus at Eastern University near Philadelphia.
"Do you think Jesus meant what he said, or do you think he was kidding?" he asked.
"There is nothing wrong with making a million dollars. I wish you all would make a million dollars. There is nothing wrong with making it, but there is something wrong with keeping it," he said. "My Bible tells me in 1 John 3:17, 'If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need but shuts off his compassion from him-how can God's love reside in him?'"
After calling on both individuals and churches to pour themselves into ministering to the poor, he shouted, "Rise up, you suckers, and go out and do the work of Jesus!"
— Gore called for Baptists to protect the environment, pleading for participants in the convocation to make creation care one of their major initiatives.
The former vice president and Nobel laureate discussed the research behind his Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" during a luncheon attended by 2,500 participants.
"The evidence is there," Gore said. "The signal is on the mountain. The trumpet has blown. The scientists are screaming from the rooftops. The ice is melting. The land is parched. The seas are rising. The storms are getting stronger. Why do we not judge what is right?…
"There is a distinct possibility that one of the messages coming out of this gathering and this new covenant is creation care-that we who are Baptists of like mind and attempting in our lives to the best of our abilities to glorify God, are not going to countenance the continued heaping of contempt on God's creation."
— Ironically, the world-for the first time in history-began producing enough food to eliminate hunger altogether in the 1960s, Grassley said, noting one in seven people worldwide goes to bed hungry each night.
"Unfortunately, this condition, this increased food productivity, has not solved hunger throughout the entire world," he said. "Poverty, war, natural disasters contribute to the cycle of hunger. But we also confront 21st-century complexities that affect a wholesome, stable and deliverable food supply."
Grassley said increasing free trade will help alleviate hunger worldwide, but Christians in the United States should begin focusing on practical ways of alleviating hunger themselves. "If ever there was a time for unity, now is the moment-building consensus between agriculturalists and conservationists and building the food supply can create sustainable farming methods that protect the environment."
— The presence of "strangers" in the world provides a point for Baptist unity, stressed Joel Gregory, a professor of preaching at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary.
"Behind us, in front of us, ahead of us we meet the face of the stranger in the word of God," he said. "It is not a marginal issue. It's a central concern."
Unfortunately, Christians often try to care for strangers, foreigners and outsiders in the abstract, Gregory said, but God calls them to care for the stranger "in his concreteness, in his particularity, in his idiosyncrasies….Behind every generalization is God's particularity-that person in front of me right now."
— Another group that needs the force of Baptist unity is composed of the 47 million Americans who do not have medical insurance, said former Surgeon General David Satcher, of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Inequities persist in the United States' health-care system, he noted. "An African-American baby is 2 1/2 times as likely to die in the first year of life as a majority baby," and globally, child-mortality disparities between he wealthiest and poorest countries are far worse.
"For me, that is not a political issue; it's a moral issue," he said.
— Setting the captive free also is a moral issue, echoed Charles G. Adams, pastor of Hartford Baptist Church in Detroit.
If Baptists do not share freedom with others, "then our souls will be destroyed and our freedom with it," Adams said. "We are free only if we face the challenge of freedom, do the work of freedom, fight the fight of freedom and die the death for freedom.
"We are filled with the Spirit only to empty ourselves in the liberation of others. We are loved only to love others. We are free only to accept the responsibility of setting others free."
Convocation participants fleshed out the repeated calls for unity through ministry in 32 special-interest sessions. They featured practical applications of the unity/service theme.
Those sessions are likely to provide the backbone of structure for fleshing out what the convocation means and how participants will continue what began in Atlanta, predicted Jimmy Allen, program chairman for the event.
Ministerial students who attended each session took notes on the outcomes and proposals for cooperation in ministry, he said. They also gathered e-mail addresses of participants who want to continue collaboration on a range of poverty, racial, equality, peacemaking and other policy issues.
"Where we go from here will be very important," Carter told reporters. "People stop me and say, 'We don't want this to be just a moment, but a movement.'"
This spring, the convocation leadership group will reconvene in Atlanta to consider hundreds of suggestions and discuss how to follow up, he said.
The answer will not be creating yet another Baptist convention, Allen added. "This movement will not be centralized. It can't be. … We're not an organized structure. We're stimulating and reflecting a movement of God that is bigger than us."
Answers likely will include opportunities for individuals, congregations and larger Baptist groups "to add our voice to common commitment" to implement the ideas for ministry that surfaced in Atlanta, Carter said.
Implementation of those commitments could answer one criticism of the New Baptist Covenant-absence of Southern Baptist Convention leadership, he added.
Carter noted he had developed a positive relationship with SBC President Frank Page, who initially criticized the endeavor. Carter also said he would provide Page with a full report on the convocation and its possible outcomes.
"The results of this meeting will determine how the Southern Baptist leaders respond to us," he predicted. "We will reach out" to them to participate in follow-up projects, he added.
Carter also debunked the notion that no Southern Baptists participated in the convocation. For example, his congregation, Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., allocates 5 percent of its budget to the SBC and 5 percent to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Many other Baptists churches follow that pattern, he asserted.
Historian Walter Shurden, recently retired director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University and one of the early organizers of the convocation, said the event could become "a major step in racial reconciliation and gender recognition of Baptists in North America."
"It's the most significant Baptist meeting in my life, after playing in the Baptist yard 55 years or so," he said. "I've never been to a Baptist meeting where there was the equality as well as the presence" of multi-racial, multi-gender participation.
"It bears the marks of the ministry of Jesus."
Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant
Watch videos of New Baptist Covenant speakers
Central Seminary president Marshall urges practices to increase capacity for sacred
Opinion: The beginning of a movement?
Opinion: Layers of healing at the New Baptist Covenant
Covenant organizers close gathering with determination but few specifics