Covenant participants close gathering with determination but few specifics | Print |

By Greg Warner
Associated Baptist Press

Photo: Rod Reilly

ATLANTA-"We don't want this to be a wasted moment," Jimmy Carter said, describing the excitement and concern he said he found among participants in the first-of-its-kind New Baptist Covenant, which wrapped up its three-day gathering in Atlanta Feb. 1.

As the unprecedented event came to a close, participants and organizers alike pondered the challenging task of turning energy and enthusiasm into tangible action.

Former President Carter, a Baptist layman and the catalyst for the New Baptist Covenant, said many of the estimated 15,000 participants stopped him in the hallways of the Georgia World Congress Center to urge organizers to capture and build on the positive spirit of the gathering-the first collaborative meeting of more than 30 Baptist denominations and groups in North America.

No plans have been laid yet for another convocation, organizers said, and there is no need for a new interdenominational structure. But organizers committed to meet again in March to set a course for follow-up ministries.

Carter invited participants to submit ideas for future collaboration, but the organizers acknowledged getting 30 groups with different cultures and histories to work together would not be easy.

"The diversity of this group represents both its potential and its problem," said William Shaw, one of the event organizers and president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the oldest of the predominantly African-American Baptist denominations.

The diverse participants have "a sense of expectation" that the meeting will lead to a new era of collaboration and unity among Baptists who have been divided along racial and theological lines since before the Civil War.

"We're not on a picnic here. We're on a journey," said program co-chair Jimmy Allen. "And we're going to be working hard to overcome these cultural barriers."

Carter said participants had already demonstrated a consensus to work on environmental stewardship, civil rights, equality for men and women, and ministry to immigrants.

Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denominational group not involved in the New Baptist Covenant, might cooperate with the new coalition, he said, despite its initial opposition to the movement.

Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University and event co-chair with Carter, said the gathering will have a positive impact on the public witness of Baptists.

"People are seeing Baptists talking about working together and doing positive things together, rather than bickering," he said. "I think that is a very positive thing for Baptists."

"The next steps have already begun," added David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship, an umbrella group encompassing all the organizations in the New Baptist Covenant coalition. The relationships formed among the sponsoring groups and their leaders have paved the way for future collaboration, he said.

Shaw said the movement could have international impact as well. "There have been Christians around the world taking notice that we have been doing something unprecedented," he said.

Shaw said the New Baptist Covenant movement represents "the moving of the Spirit of God within the religious community." That Spirit "has moved us to respond to what we all agree is a central claim of the Kingdom of God," summarized in Jesus' sermon in Luke 4, which provided the framework for the New Baptist Covenant meeting and future collaboration.

Allen, the last moderate Baptist president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, agreed the Covenant is "reflecting a movement of God that is bigger than any participating group."

Allen said the Covenant leaders are not interested in organization, structure or control. While follow-up plans will come, he said, the leaders are welcoming suggestions from attendants and counting on grassroots involvement. "Everything is going to be considered that is suggested," he said.

"We're not trying to find ways to say no. We're trying to find ways to say 'go.'"

Daniel Vestal, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said the relationships formed among his fellow organizers will pave the way for whatever follows. And one role for the leaders is to foster relationships among grassroots participants.

"There's nobody in a room over here planning this out," Vestal said. "There is a desire among all of us not to control it."

"I think the New Baptist Covenant is a gift from God," he concluded. "Now we are responsible for how we steward and manage that gift with great care."

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