Baptists from across Africa offered an enthusiastic greeting to attendees of the opening session of the 21st Baptist World Congress.
The Congress, an event held every five years by the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), convened Wednesday night in Durban, South Africa.
It was the first Congress held in Africa, and the context of South Africa flavored the words and music of the meeting.
South African Paul Msiza, who will be BWA’s president for 2015-20, told EthicsDaily.com that the BWA holding its Congress in Africa “speaks volumes to our family of the unity of the body of Christ.”
“To embrace the church in its entirety,” he said, “to say as a church we’re willing to go to the end of the world, to see the fellowship of the church worship together without any divide, that speaks about the good news of the gospel and that speaks about what we celebrate as the body of Christ.”
A couple of BWA and South African Baptist leaders offered registration predictions to EthicsDaily.com ranging from 2,300 to 2,800. The leaders also suggested two issues hurt attendance.
Some non-African Baptists decided against coming due to concerns about Ebola, even though the countries affected by the disease are more than 6,500 miles away from Durban (about twice the distance from Seattle, Washington, to Miami, Florida).
Another factor cited as hurting attendance was news of xenophobic violence earlier this year in Durban that left several people dead.
Since the attacks targeted migrants from other African nations, this led some African Baptists to fear attending the Congress.
Already EthicsDaily.com has learned police have warned some Baptists walking the streets to avoid doing so unless in large groups.
As a roll call of all nations represented at the Congress occurred during the opening session, individuals often stood up and cheered as their county was called.
The most boisterous presence came from the large group of Nigerian Baptists who popped up throughout the convention hall.
Baptists from South Africa and the United States followed in numbers and energy.
South African musicians danced and sang as they welcomed Baptists from more than 80 nations.
Performers sang as the flags of the African nations rotated on the screen in front of a map of Africa.
The welcome from South African Baptists also included the singing of their national anthem and a narrated show with photos and videos that told of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and the democratic elections in 1994 that birthed the democratic nation.
The show featured numerous images of Mandela, whom they also paid tribute to in a song, “We Love You, Madiba” (Mandela’s nickname).
The presentation also offered an overview of the nation’s Baptist history, including details about the immigration of British, German, Indian, Chinese and Portuguese Baptists.
The narrator concluded that the Baptist community in South Africa is no longer mainly an English-speaking, white church, but now represents “our rainbow nation.”
Msiza noted to EthicsDaily.com that the African concept of “Ubuntu” offers a good description of the BWA’s mission.
The notion of Ubuntu was particularly popularized outside of the southern African region by Tutu as he helped lead the nation toward healing after the fall of apartheid in 1994.
“Ubuntu talks about ‘I am because we are together as people,'” Msiza said. “What the Baptist World Alliance tries to say is we are the body of Christ affirming one another, we are the body of Christ recognizing and accepting that we do have diversity, but we’re bound together.”
“And that’s the very essence of Ubuntu,” he said. “Because when you talk about Ubuntu, you talk about welcoming, you talk about accepting, you talk about seeing the image of God in every person. And this is what the Baptist World Alliance is all about: the fellowship of believers from all over the world, from every background, from every language, from ethnic group and from every tribe. We are the people of God together.”
During a session on Wednesday, BWA General Secretary Neville Callam said the concept of Ubuntu “is at the heart of the message of the Christian church.”
Callam, who traveled to South Africa in 1994 as a United Nations observer for the nation’s historic democratic elections that swept Mandela into office, called South Africa “a gift to the world.”
He expressed his hope the Congress can “seize upon the notion of Ubuntu … where the welfare of one is a concern of all and the destiny of one is bound up with the destiny of all.”
“We understand all our destinies are bound up with one another,” he said. “We recognize how much we depend on each other and how much we realize ourselves – not only as individuals but as communities – through our relationships.”
Throughout the opening worship session, the diversity of languages and traditions was celebrated.
Songs and Scripture passages were offered in multiple languages, and the global congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together in their own tongues.
Translation services also helped Baptists to understand the service. For example, Don Sewell, director of Faith in Action Initiatives at Baylor Scott and White Health’s in Dallas and EthicsDaily.com’s Baptist of the Year for 2014, translated into Spanish a sermon delivered in English by Peter Chin, pastor of Global Mission Church in the Republic of Korea.
A new African Baptist group even joined the BWA earlier in the day. During the final meeting of the BWA’s General Council for 2010-15, the Evangelical Baptist Churches in Zimbabwe was accepted as a new BWA member body.
Trust Ndlovu, the convention’s secretary general, offered his thanks after the vote.
“We believe in unity in diversity,” he said. “We are pleased to work together as a family.”
Editor’s note: Pictures from the BWA World Congress will be posted throughout the week to EthicsDaily.com’s Pinterest page and Facebook page. Video interviews of BWA attendees will be posted to EthicsDaily.com’s Vimeo page. Kaylor’s previous reports from the Baptist World Congress are available here: