WINSTON-SALEM — For two days more than 1,000 Baptists continued the spirit of the 2008 Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant by putting aside differences and focusing on the shared work of addressing the world’s needs.
The theme of the third of five scheduled regional gatherings was “God’s Year to Act,” and worship services and workshops emphasized the importance of Baptist Christians responding to the Luke 4 call of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, releasing the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor — all at a time of economic recession.
Writer and Wake Forest professor Maya Angelou opened the gathering with a call to be “rainbows in someone’s dark cloud” and former President Jimmy Carter closed by reminding the audience of the New Baptist Covenant’s vision of achieving unity among Baptists.
Other keynote speakers included Wake Forest Divinity student Matt Johnson, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church pastor Clifford A. Jones of Charlotte and Park Road Baptist Church co-pastor Amy Jacks Dean of Charlotte.
Practical ministry workshops included “Addressing Healthcare Issues in Our Parish/Communities,” “Beyond the Vision Statement: Strategies for Faithful Ministry,” “Creation Care: Rationale and Resources for Congregations,” “Strangers in the Land: Ministry to Immigrants and Refugees,” “Baptist Identity Then and Now: Why and Why Not?” “Inviting in the Stranger: Ministry to the Homeless,” and “Enabling the Church to Meet the Educational Needs of Youth.”
There was also a gathering of students held on Friday night designed to generate discussion and build new relationships.
In the opening time of worship, the 81-year-old Angelou entered singing a line from a 19th century slave song — “When it looks like the sun ain’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.” She wove a poetic narrative of people who were rainbows in her life and how Baptists can be rainbows in the stormy lives of others.
“When Rev. (Serenus) Churn called and asked me to speak, I thought ‘What am I doing? What am I doing? Then I thought about you, and I thought about rainbows. For 400 years you have been a rainbow to someone. That’s what Baptists have tried to be — a hope.”
Referring to the 400th anniversary of Baptists being celebrated this year, Angelou claimed her Baptist heritage as a positive influence on her life. She asked the Baptists in attendance to be part of the solution of the problem of racism.
“We see the blight of racism still assailing us,” she said. “At some point we have to stop letting differences divide us … a smile and ‘good morning’ to someone who looks different than you can lift someone’s spirits … in a second, you can qualify someone to be on this earth.”
In the Friday night service, Jones asked if the poor had a reason to say “Amen.” He suggested a relationship with Jesus was a compelling reason to say “Amen” and that Baptists can play a powerful role in solving poverty by working together.
“I like this gathering that former President Carter has brought together because it maximizes our strengths,” he said.
As the messages in worship built toward Saturday afternoon’s final service, the message and music dealt with setting the captive free, as described in Luke 4.
“Mercy isn’t a feeling like ‘bless his heart,’” said Jacks Dean on Saturday morning. “Mercy isn’t pity. Mercy isn’t a sentiment. Mercy is an action. It’s something that we do… mercy has something to do with how we treat people who are captive.”
Carter capped the event by reviewing the 2008 Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant and the need for unity among Baptists.
“Since I left the White House, Rosalynn and I have visited 125 countries,” he said. “We learned that Baptists are known all over the world for our disagreements and being argumentative … Arguments about interpretation of scripture are like a cancer in the Christ’s body … It’s directly opposite of the gently and loving nature of the one we worship.”
He offered a list of rhetorical questions for the audience about issues Baptists have disagreed on over the years, including women in ministry, the death penalty, accepting homosexuals into church membership among others. He then asked the audience if they could affirm two statements: salvation comes from the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and Baptists should put aside their differences to work together to help the poor. Both statements received enthusiastic applause.
“Let us pray that all other Christians can be bound together in a spirit of peace, freedom and love,” Carter said to conclude his remarks, which were followed by a standing ovation.
Carter has committed to speak at each of the scheduled regional meetings, offering a word of encouragement to continue to work toward the ideals of the New Baptist Covenant. Event organizers pronounced the Winston-Salem event successful on many levels.
“It’s been beyond our wildest imagination in terms of the multi-racial, inter-church and multi-generational involvement,” said Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School and chief organizer of the event. “This effort was a genuine people’s movement and so many individuals and churches contributed to it.”
Churn, senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, and one of the co-chairs of the steering committee for the event, expressed excitement at the progress the New Baptist Covenant is making at bringing together Baptists of all races.
“This is the first local expression of that event in 2008, and this has been a tremendous response,” Churn said. “It has been wonderful, and it’s just the beginning of worshipping and working together.”
The next regional gathering is scheduled for Aug. 6-7 in Norman, Okla., with another one in Chicago, Ill., in 2010. New Baptist Covenant program chair Jimmy Allen said there are efforts underway in Los Angeles and Philadelphia to organize regional meetings in the future.
“There is something going on,” Allen said. “God is building bridges among us. We’re not trying to control it. We’re not forming a new denomination. If Paul and Silas had waited until a missions organization had been formed, we would never have heard from them again. We need you to go from this meeting and take action.”
The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. The organizations have united around the shared vision found in Luke 4:18-19.