Public servants & preachers challenge Baptists to welcome 'the stranger' | Print |

By Robert Marus
Associated Baptist Press

Photo: Rod Reilly

ATLANTA-The biblical command to "welcome the stranger" encompasses support for all of those on society's margins, prominent preachers and public servants told participants at the celebration of a New Baptist Covenant Feb. 1.

In the Friday-morning plenary session of the Atlanta event, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Texas preacher Joel Gregory and former Surgeon General David Satcher insisted the plight of immigrants, the hungry and people lacking proper health care should be of utmost concern to followers of Christ.

"Behind us, in front of us, ahead of us we meet the face of the stranger in the word of God," said Gregory, a professor of preaching at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary. "It is not a marginal issue. It's a central concern."

Gregory and the other speakers spoke on one of the Baptist meeting's broad themes-fulfilling the biblical mandate to embrace the other. Gregory noted that the oldest part of the Hebrew Bible—the Covenant Code—commands God's people to welcome outsiders.

"It is interesting that no other ancient Near Eastern law said anything about the stranger," he said. "But this odd God who chooses the Jews as his own people throughout (Scripture) addresses them about the stranger."

Christians often try to care for strangers, foreigners and outsiders in the abstract, Gregory said, but God calls them to care for the stranger "in his concreteness, in his particularity, in his idiosyncrasies."

"Behind every generalization is God's particularity—that person in front of me right now."

Gregory told the crowd that he and the vast majority of them, as Baptists, had not so long before been on the margins of culture themselves.

"For most of us it's been little more than a 100 years ago when we were a rural, agrarian, proletarian, uneducated people. God has done something for us," he said. "We dare not forget where we came from when it comes to the stranger—of all people, Baptist people cannot forget."

Grassley, a Baptist who has used his position as ranking minority member of the Senate finance committee to focus on issues of hunger and economic justice, told listeners part of welcoming the stranger involves helping the world's hungry.

"As descendants of Abraham, we've inherited the earth. We're morally obligated to leave it better than we found it," he said.

He cited statistics estimating that 1 out of 7 people in the world goes to bed hungry each night, and 400 million of them are children. Grassley also noted that food shortages and competition over food resources can create instability and conflict between nations and people groups.

"It's said that society is only nine meals away from revolution," he said. "Food security is fundamental to human existence. It's amazing that something of such monumental importance is overlooked or underestimated by many."

Grassley said the world-for the first time in history—began producing enough food to eliminate hunger altogether in the 1960s.

"Unfortunately, this condition, this increased food productivity has not solved hunger throughout the entire world," he said. "Poverty, war, natural disasters contribute to the cycle of hunger. But we also confront 21st-century complexities that affect a wholesome, stable and deliverable food supply."

Grassley said increasing free trade will help alleviate hunger worldwide, but Christians in the United States should begin focusing on practical ways of alleviating hunger themselves.

For instance, he cited the current Farm Bill making its way through Congress. Grassley attempted to include provisions that would cap the agricultural subsidies paid to large corporate farmers. Those lead to overproduction of subsidized crops, which in turn floods the markets in other nations and hurts farmers in poor countries.

"A 20-million member alliance would certainly create a formidable beacon to illuminate the darkness," he said, referring to the collective membership of the various Baptist bodies participating in the meeting.

"If ever there was a time for unity, now is the moment—building consensus between agriculturalist and conservationists and building the food supply can create sustainable farming methods that protect the environment."

Another group of disenfranchised outsiders even closer to home, according to Satcher, is the estimated 47 million Americans who have no health insurance.

Satcher noted that he nearly died of whooping cough as a toddler in rural Alabama because his parents were poor and no hospitals in his area would admit blacks.

Inequities persist in the United States' health-care system, he noted.

"An African-American baby is 2 1/2 times as likely to die in the first year of life as a majority baby," he said. Globally, child-mortality disparities between the wealthiest and poorest countries are far worse.

"For me, that is not a political issue; it's a moral issue," he said, to applause.

Grassley was also asked to speak about the subject of the immigration crisis in the place of his Senate colleague, South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham. Organizers said Graham had to withdraw from the celebration at the last minute because he was stumping on the campaign trail for Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"I have come to the conclusion after two years of debate on immigration without success that it's going to take the love of Jesus Christ to bring people together," he said.

Grassley predicted that comprehensive immigration reform wouldn't be able to pass Congress until after the next president takes office, and that it will continue to be an issue in the campaign.

"Now, I hope that in the presidential election … that the rhetoric of it doesn't make the problem worse. It has that capability of doing that," he said. "That's why there has to be a lot of prayer for the two candidates."

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