HONOLULU — Standing in the exhibit hall during the Baptist World Congress in Honolulu, Paul Montacute surveys the array of displays and smiles with delight.
“Just look at that,” says the director of BWAid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance. “Twenty years ago this room would have been dominated by vendors selling their wares. Now, look at the number of organizations that are committed to responding to global needs – from hunger and homelessness to HIV AIDS to human trafficking to disaster relief.”
Montacute emphasizes that he is no way discounting the important role of organizations that provide resources to Baptist churches around the world. But the presence of multiple organizations involved in Christian social ministries is for Montacute a microcosm of change he has witnessed over two decades.
“I think Baptists today are more holistic, not only in our thinking but in our actions, and I see that the world over,” he says. The BWA’s member bodies and their congregations have increasingly embraced Jesus’ call to meet the needs of the world’s poor, oppressed and marginalized people “without compromising in any way our commitment to evangelism and discipleship,” he adds.
The day after the 20th World Congress adjourns will mark 20 years to the day since Montacute and his family flew from their home in Great Britain to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to join the BWA staff. He had made a commitment to Denton Lotz, BWA’s general secretary at the time, to give five years to leading the work of BWAid.
Two decades later, Montacute has lost track of the number of countries he has visited to assess the needs of communities ravaged by the atrocities of genocide, the violence of war or the devastation of natural disasters.
“One needs a good constitution for traveling, lots of faith and a good sense of humor,” he says.
More than any other single factor, improved communication technologies have dramatically changed the way BWAid does its work, Montacute says, especially in responding to natural disasters such as this year’s earthquake in Haiti. Critical information can be gathered in hours and distributed promptly to BWA member bodies, churches and other organizations. Decision-makers can be convened via the internet. Relief and development efforts can be coordinated quickly and then adjusted to meet changing circumstances.
Another deeply gratifying change, Montacute says, is the increased level of trust and cooperation among Baptist organizations. “There are fewer concerns about control and turf protection, and I am profoundly grateful for that,” he says. “There’s a realization that it’s all God’s business, and we can all work together.”
After 20 years, one thing about his work remains unchanged. “It’s still as difficult as ever to say no to a request for help due to a lack of resources,” he says. “That part never gets easier.”
David Wilkinson is executive director of Associated Baptist Press.