Jimmy Carter walked briskly into the Zaban Room at The Carter Center last Tuesday afternoon, shook hands with invitees and invited participants to be seated. We were there for a planning meeting of the 2011 New Baptist Covenant (NBC) gathering.
President Jimmy Carter brought North American Baptists together in 2008 for the New Baptist Covenant and good things happened, Parham observes. (Photo: Global Health Council)
Carter listened carefully, gave all abundant time to speak, took notes, asked questions and spoke candidly. He drew conclusions.
For three hours, 28 goodwill Baptists shared high points from the 2008 NBC gathering and some disappointments with the follow-up. Several said that the meeting in Atlanta two years ago was the best experience of their Baptist life. Others said they hoped the meeting next year would show the best face of Baptists – Baptists who do justice and love mercy, Baptists who refuse to split apart advocacy and missions, Baptists who are united and committed to historic principles.
We spoke about the purpose of the 2011 meeting, program content and the event structure.
Carter said he saw no better foundational passage for the meeting than Luke 4:18-19.
As goodwill Baptists begin to imagine and plan for the 2011 gathering, remembering accurately a post-event meeting in 2008 is necessary.
Some 70 Baptists gathered a few weeks after the Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, event that drew more than 15,000 Baptists. We met in March at The Carter Center to evaluate what had happened and where to go next.
Two key commitments emerged. First was a consensus that we would reconvene a 2011 meeting, following the pattern of the early Baptists in North America who met together every three years. Second was a decision that the NBC would not become "a separate official organization."
Carter has been faithful to those commitments. He has not sought to fashion an alternative organization to the multiplicity of conventions, many of which are geographically centered. Most of these conventions are divided along racial lines, save American Baptist Churches-USA.
Additionally, he is keeping his word to support a triennial meeting.
From my perspective, without President Carter, North American Baptists will continue to sail apart with occasional pleasantries and a few temporary moments of cooperation.
But robust moral advocacy and muscular collaboration will be mostly missing, except for a few organizations with a pan-Baptist vision and purpose such as EthicsDaily.com, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a few others. After all, denominational offices by definition are reluctant to loosen their grip on churches and coffers.
Bluntly put, without Carter, North American Baptists remain at a distance from one another. With Carter, North American Baptists come together to form friendships, to cooperate across denominational trenches and to give witness to the best of the Baptist tradition.
No one knows where the Spirit of God will blow as we head to and from the 2011 gathering. We do know from experience that much good can come from the process, the event and the follow-up.
The 2008 NBC birthed relationships and resources that have enriched the Baptist ethos – at least from my perspective.
Follow with me one relational thread that resulted in a new resource.
Through the NBC, I got to know David Goatley, executive secretary-treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. When we began looking in early 2009 for constructive stories about the interface between Baptists and Muslims in North America for our documentary "Different Books, Common Word," I e-mailed Goatley to see if he had any recommendations.
He recommended Sam Tolbert, pastor of Greater Saint Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles, La., and general secretary for the National Baptist Convention of America Inc. Providentially, Tolbert and I had sat next to one another at the Al Gore luncheon. Tolbert's proactive involvement with the Islamic community in Louisiana and Texas became one of the documentary's key stories.
Consider a second relational thread. I met Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, American Baptist Churches-USA, in the summer of 2007. He became one of the interviewees in our 13-minute DVD, "The Nazareth Manifesto," that was released in the fall of 2007 to introduce and to promote the 2008 NBC. It centered viewers' attention on the biblical basis for the meeting – Luke 4:18-19.
Wright-Riggins became a member of BCE's board of directors and an interviewee in "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism." Filming of our award-winning documentary began at the Atlanta meeting where we got footage and clips from speeches by Carter and John Grisham.
The stories continue.
At the Atlanta 2008 NBC, I also met Wendell Griffen, who is now pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock and general counsel for the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. Griffen is a BCE board member, whose columns and sermon manuscripts appear frequently on EthicsDaily.com.
But wait – the stories continue.
Out of the NBC, I got to know Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches-USA. He invited me to a 2008 Labor Day weekend meeting between Baptists and Muslims at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America.
Medley and Goatley both became interviewees in "Different Books, Common Word" that aired in January and February 2010 on ABC-TV stations.
In a collaborative effort among a number of Baptist bodies, we produced "The Agenda: 8 Lessons from Luke 4" that is still being used as a small group Bible study. Lesson writers include Goatley and Wright-Riggins, as well as a Canadian, a Mexican and other U.S. Baptists representing different conventions.
Given these examples of dynamic relationships and substantive educational resources that advance the common good, I'm an energetic advocate for the 2011 meeting.
Carter brought North American Baptists together and good things happened. He is bringing us together again.
As the famous Baptist missionary William Carey said, "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God."
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.