Babs Baugh reminds me that I’m too serious, that I need to lighten up.
And of course, she is right.
My seriousness does come with the territory. Immigration, Baptist-Muslim interfaith relations, poverty, incivility, climate change are all intensely serious issues.
Interviewing and introducing Al Gore on his global warming work – despite intense opposition; interviewing former President Jimmy Carter on prison reform; meeting with former Sen. Bill Frist about the Christian Coalition’s misrepresentation of the depth of its membership; debating Paige Patterson on national TV over the role of women; collaborating on justice concerns with global Baptists are all weighty matters.
The weightiness of our witness and work, however, have masked some experiences that offer hindsight humor. I chuckle now about them. But at the time, I was sure disaster was pending. Others were big bloopers.
In celebration of the Baptist Center for Ethics’ 25th anniversary, I want to share some movements that now bring joy to my heart.
None gives me more of a chuckle than what happened on the first night in the Sonoran Desert at a No More Deaths camp outside of Arivaca.
Cliff Vaughn, Miguel de la Torre and I were there with two crusty Presbyterian saints – John Fife and Gene Lefebvre. We were going to be walking the death trails that the undocumented use to enter the United States. We were going to cross into Mexico. We wanted to experience the plight of the undocumented for our documentary, “Gospel Without Borders.”
On a cold, January 2011 night, four of us decided to sleep in the medical tent that was without heat, without electricity. Vaughn decided to sleep in the jeep. Deep in the night, buried in our sleeping bags, we were awakened.
De la Torre whispered that something white and furry was clawing into his backpack, as if the creature couldn’t hear him. We are wide awake. No one dared move. We knew we had been joined by a skunk.
I remembered exactly where my shoes and jacket were. Then, in a full-fledged, collective panic, I grabbed my gear as did the others. We dashed out of the tent, hoping beyond hope that we didn’t get sprayed!
By the goodness of God, we didn’t. Had we, the trip would have had to be rebooted.
Outside in the freezing weather, we gathered firewood and built a roaring fire. Vaughn sleepily emerged from the Jeep wondering what in the world was going on. Sitting around the fire, we figured that the skunk could have the homemade sweets in de la Torre’s backpack.
Call it the day ethicists escaped the skunk!
On the other side of the world in the oppressive heat of Tanzania, three Oklahomans – two Baptists and a Muslim – T. Thomas, Bruce Prescott and Orhan Osman, and I were on a Baptist-Muslim goodwill trip.
We had left behind Oklahoma’s infectious fear of Islam to combat the infectious disease of malaria in Tanzania.
We had a splendid adventure, traveling to rural villages, distributing mosquito-repellent nets, learning about how Muslims and Christians lived peaceably together, seeing the multitude of cell phones, even of those dressed in traditional Swahili garments.
We randomly gave a woman the 100,000th net from His Nets. We learned that she was named after the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Fatimah, with the surname for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Her husband’s name was Isa – Jesus in Arabic. Irony of ironies.
The night before our return flight, we were hosted for a feast on a rooftop in Dar es Salaam by the Turkish Feza School.
Thomas began fidgeting. He began suggesting that we needed to head to the airport for the flight back to Amsterdam.
Our hosts kept saying, don’t worry, no problem. Thomas finally announced in exasperation that we needed to leave.
We squeezed into a small car, luggage in laps, heading across town to the airport. Then, the lights went out in the city. Pitch black. We were trapped in a massive traffic jam. When we ran short of fuel, Osman got out of the car in search of a gas station, returning with a jug of petrol.
We waited. No movement. Thomas kept looking at the watch, expressing frustration. I began to worry he would have a heart attack. Prescott was becoming nervous.
Osman suddenly jumped out of the car and disappeared into the darkness. Traffic soon began to move. Osman had found the bottleneck. The man who spoke English and Turkish – not Swahili – was directing traffic in Tanzania’s largest city.
Once through the logjam, we made it to the airport – and the refreshing coolness of the aircraft.
The experience was far more humorous in hindsight. Call it the night the lights went out in Dar es Salaam!
Then, there was the experience at a Baptist World Alliance meeting in Accra, Ghana.
Emmanuel McCall and I decided to visit the African art market. I wanted to buy a tribal mask for my collection. I found a well-done piece in a stall.
I asked the price. I began the process of negotiation. I finally said the price was too high and walked away, knowing that I would return the next afternoon to renegotiate a cheaper price.
When I got to the stall the next afternoon, I realized that a different man was running it. Good, I thought. I’ll get a better price. I asked him the price.
He said, what did my brother say yesterday. I fudged confusion. He reached into his raggedy, dirty shorts, pulling out his cell phone. He called his brother, asking the price. My leverage was gone. I was deflated. I purchased the mask.
One more BWA experience. My daughter went with me to the meeting in Vancouver. Emmanuel McCall asked me to serve on the Commission on Christian Ethics, which he chaired.
He wanted me to be a counterweight to the Southern Baptist fundamentalist on the commission in the days before the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the BWA.
At the first seminar, we had a vigorous discussion about a long-forgotten topic.
When we got back to the hotel, my daughter asked me: Why did that woman in the hat keep writing down everything you said?
Yes, Dorothy Patterson was there, spec hunting, taking notes. Hoping I would say something that she and her SBC colleagues could use against me and the BWA.
That experience is a lot more humorous today than then! Back then, we were all walking on eggshells, wanting neither to offend the fundamentalists, nor let them run roughshod over goodwill global Baptists.
Thank God for the good memories.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.