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A Baptist Pioneer Remembered for Building Interfaith Bridges

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Wayne Martin began building interfaith bridges before it became a fashionable thing to do.

Growing up in South Georgia’s “buckle of the Bible Belt,” honing his theological perspective on those deep-faith roots in two contexts of Baptist education at its best in the mid-20th century – Mercer University and Southeastern Seminary, Wayne served as pastor of a number of small and midsize churches before retiring in the Atlanta area a few years ago.

Wayne’s imposing stature, his resonant voice and his full head of white hair fostered an image of an “old-time Baptist preacher,” while his liberal mind and keen theological insight often surprised any who might assume a traditional stereotype.

He was a valued member of our church in his retirement and a dear friend to many, who are now saddened by his death a few weeks ago at age 85 after several months of declining health.

His legacy is like that of many in his generation who have served without limelight and often without adequate compensation in the ever-challenging world of church life.

He offered guidance for the journey week in and week out, comforted those who grieved and encouraged those who struggled with the deeper challenges of life.

The mantle of “unsung hero” would fit nicely around his shoulders, along with many of his generation.

One feature of his legacy stands out as distinctive, however; his contribution has been instrumental in the healthy growth of a spirit of community across lines that have often been marked by indifference at best and hostility at worst.

When he was serving a congregation in south Florida, he became friends with a rabbi in his neighborhood. Their friendship led to interactions between his church and the rabbi’s synagogue.

Their association led to the development of opportunities for interfaith conversations and fellowship among clergy and laypersons in the larger community; an interfaith coalition remains a feature of that diverse context.

Wayne took the benefit of this experience with him to serve as a pastor in eastern North Carolina and subsequently in his retirement to Atlanta.

His connections put him in touch with the Jewish and Muslim communities in the Atlanta area.

He led in the development of a task force under the auspices of the Georgia Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to work toward developing friendships across faith lines that would promote understanding and respect among people of good will among all traditions.

Always with a perspective that kept openness to friendship at the forefront of any conversation, our meetings led to interesting discoveries on both sides.

An early discovery in the experience was that not only did Baptists often hold misconceptions of the perspectives and beliefs of people of other faiths, but also people of other faiths held sometimes surprising conceptions of Baptists.

For those of us steeped in the Christian and Baptist tradition, it was interesting to discover how neighbors of other faiths understood Baptists.

There was caution on their part that our agenda in encouraging dialogue might be a subtle effort to persuade or convert, rather than to learn and deepen our understanding of what we considered to be a shared faith on many levels.

Honesty compelled us to acknowledge that such a perception was understandable, given much of what is done and said publicly by and about Baptists.

Wayne’s leadership carefully and respectfully steered that perception in a healthier direction.

Some of our larger events designed to broaden the experience of our congregations in interfaith conversation led to a second discovery.

After an event with fellowship, conversation and a program illustrating our shared values, it was not unusual for folks from the “Baptist side” to remark, “We have more in common with these friends than we do with some Baptists.”

Such anecdotes tell the story of one pioneer with a vision for community that transcends some of the boundaries that have led to isolation and even destruction within the human family.

When the “rightness” of particular beliefs becomes more important than the call to love one another, the possibility of respectful peace within that family is diminished significantly.

We have not been without good teachers in that cause, and our friend Wayne Martin was one of the masters.

He knew that community starts when one neighbor meets another with mutual respect and a willingness to be enriched by the association.

Using his exceptional gift with language, Wayne regularly composed “greetings” letters to neighboring synagogues and mosques, honoring their holy days and seasons – simple acts with a profound message.

Overt and subtle demonizing of the “other,” so effective in exploiting the latent fears that reside in all of us – and which is often the dark underside of orthodoxy – may claim the mantle of righteousness for a season, but the presence and persistence of those who model the alternative of grace and friendship remind us of a better way.

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.