To an outsider, the main impetus for the New Baptist Covenant, supported by 30 Baptist denominations and groups in North America might seem clear: an opportunity for the Baptists of North America to re-group after the years of controversy centered on the Southern Baptist Convention and its withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance.
And certainly there was something of that in the air. The SBC was not officially represented at the gathering. At the beginning of the week former President Jimmy Carter appealed that there should be no negative criticism of others, and on the whole his call was heeded. The gathering ended with former President Bill Clinton recounting some of his own experiences of the SBC conflict. I reflected again that it is difficult for British Baptists to fully appreciate the deep hurts and estrangements which the conflict created and which will perhaps take several generations to heal.
But as I gathered with over 10,000 others in the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, I quickly realized that there were other realities here too. Most significantly, we were in the very city where Martin Luther King had been born and raised, and where he ministered towards the end of this life. The president of Mercer University, William Underwood, opened the whole event with the words of King’s famous “dream” that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
In fact this was the first national Baptist gathering in the United States where this had happened–the four major U.S. black conventions joining with American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Texas and Virginia Baptists and others to sit down together in a shared event. A little cameo of this happened on the opening night as I watched equal numbers of black and white ushers walking hand in hand to take their places in the auditorium. Civil rights may have been largely, though not wholly, achieved for blacks in the U.S.A., but multiracial churches are not yet much of a reality, especially in the South.
This unique coming together gave the gathering a wonderful “rainbow” variety of music and worship with superb choirs and musicians from white, black and Hispanic Baptist traditions. The standard of preaching was high with a memorable final sermon on “For freedom Christ has set us free!” from Charles G. Adams, one of the most renowned black preachers in the U.S.A.
Former Vice President Al Gore was there to highlight his “inconvenient truth” about climate change. It was a passionate no-holds-barred presentation in which his Christian convictions showed through at several points. In the major nation on earth which has been most reluctant to face up to the reality of climate change in terms of political will, the response of the Baptists who heard Al Gore would suggest that this may be about to change.
The theme chosen for the Covenant was “Good News for the Poor,” and it is clear that many people see the future of the Covenant as not to create a new institution but to work together on this theme in practical ways in the U.S.A. and in the wider world. A moving testimony from Hanna Massad of the Gaza Baptist Church about the plight of the Palestians brought this home.
A one-time event? The beginning of a “movement?” Only time will tell. But I sensed that something new was in the air despite a slightly uneasy first coming together of black and white Baptists. There is at least the hope that there can be a new “walking together” in covenant to look outwards and respond to some of the missionary and humanitarian challenges of our time.
Perhaps Dr. King could be heard to murmur, “At last!”
Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.
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Joseph Phelps, New Baptist Covenant Celebration was Political, but not Partisan (2/05/08)
Mike Smith, The New Baptist Covenant: What’s Next? (2/06/08)
Laura A. Cadena, Can Baptists Bridge the Racial Divide? (2/07/08)
James Evans, Reflections on a New Baptist Covenant (2/08/08)
Robert Parham, Washington Post Gets It Wrong About New Baptist Covenant (2/08/08)
Robert Parham, Wall Street Journal Column about New Baptist Covenant Has Too Many Errors (2/11/08)
Charles Foster Johnson, Baptists Found Their Voice Again at New Baptist Covenant
Albert Reyes, Reflection on the New Baptist Covenant: Where Do We Go From Here? (2/13/08)
Robert Parham, Baptists Must See Crisscrossing of Race, Poverty and the Environment (2/13/08)
David Goatley, The New Baptist Covenant Celebration: A Grand Experiment (2/14/08)
Jim Evans, Al Gore the Prophet (2/15/08)
Laura Seay, To Become a Movement, New Baptist Covenant Must Look to Future (2/18/08)
Jeanie Miley, It’s Been a Long Time Since I’ve Wanted to Rededicate My Life at a
Baptist Meeting (2/19/08)