An unassuming woman without theological credentials in a male-dominated faith tradition may be one of the most transformative figures at the Baptist World Alliance’s annual gathering in Ede, Netherlands.
“I’m not a theologian. I’m not a pastor. But I know the gospel,” said Leena Lavanya in impromptu remarks in the Freedom and Justice Commission meeting, after telling participants that she had started 42 churches in India.
The announced recipient of the 2009 BWA Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award, Lavanya discussed the homes she has established in India for lepers, female sex workers and children living with HIV/AIDS. She mentioned her information technology training school for unemployed children.
Recalling her beginnings in ministry, Lavanya told commission members about meeting a prostitute and urging her to leave prostitution. When the woman decided to leave the sex trade, she said to Lavanya, “Okay, I’m ready to leave prostitution. Are you able to give support to my eight family members?”
With self-deprecating humor, Lavanya said, “I thought counseling was very easy.”
She discovered it wasn’t. In order to help the woman leave the sex trade, Lavanya shared that her family gave up breakfast for three months to save enough money to buy a sewing machine for the woman to start a new life.
A few hours later in a formal presentation, Bill Brackney read an hour-long academic paper from an historical perspective arguing that transformational initiatives are a characteristic of the Baptist tradition. From Thomas Helwys’ advocacy for religious freedom to the abolitionist movement, from Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel to the civil rights movement, Brackney sketched out 400 years of history of Baptist activism.
“Baptists are at their best as transformers,” said Brackney, a noted Baptist authority who teaches at Canada’s Acadia Divinity College.
“We want to see growth and progress in one’s walk. And we want to see changes in communities and nations,” said the professor. “Baptists are not merely social do-gooders, rather there is a deep sense that what we do we do in the interest of transformation.”
Brackney said Baptist activism “is part of our sense of vocation…This is an outgrowth of our social and religious genetic character as dissenters. Dissenters are rarely disengaged or aloof in terms of their solutions to prevailing difficulties. They make statements and they debate. They decline to follow majoritarian ways. They chart new maze ways. They are entrepreneurial…They are prepared to pay a price for their positions…They are not satisfied with watered-down principles.”
In addition to academic papers and impromptu remarks, BWA general council meetings received programmatic reports about transformative efforts.
One came from Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the BWA.
“Our income in 2008 was $1,491,383 and we gave grants of $1,542,972,” he said.
In the first five months of 2009, BWAid funded 36 projects, giving away $346,800 and receiving only $269,000 in gifts.
Using BWAid’s 2008 work in three nations, Montacute illustrated how global Baptists were feeding the hungry and meeting human needs.
BWAid built shelters, drilled wells, constructed latrines and distributed food aid in Myanmar, he said. “With the flooding of most of the land, planting for the current season was not possible.”
Another nation in crisis was the Democratic Republic of Congo where armed conflict continued to create “internally displaced persons,” said Montacute, who reported that BWAid had provided food and clean water to those adversely affected by war.
Some four years after the 2004 tsunami struck Asia, BWAid is still involved in Sri Lanka, he said. “The Baptist Village with 72 homes is probably one of the largest housing projects ever carried out by BWAid.”
BWAid’s funding comes from local churches, individuals, foundations and BWA member bodies.
In 2008, American Baptist Churches-USA gave $169,521, compared to the Baptist General Convention of Texas ($137,500), the Union of Evangelical Free Churches in Germany ($112,083) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain ($101,275).
BWAid plans to spend 62 percent of its revenue on development projects in 2010, 27 percent on disaster relief and 6 percent on capacity building or training conferences for national leaders.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.