Unity the focus of New Baptist Covenant gathering, organizers insist | Print |

By Ken Camp,
Baptist Standard

ATLANTA-If a spirit of unity prevails at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, organizers of the historic interracial meeting said they will consider the gathering a success.

And participants in the event will remain focused on the biblical mandate to show compassion and care for the needy, not be derailed by partisan politics "if we can prevent it," former President Jimmy Carter added.

Co-chairs Carter and Mercer University President Bill Underwood joined other members of the meeting's steering committee in responding to reporters' questions prior to the opening session, Jan. 30 at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center.

Carter noted he and his wife, Rosalynn, had observed in their travels worldwide how division within Christianity had hindered receptiveness to the gospel. And, he commented, Baptists are perhaps best known for fighting with each other.

Perhaps the New Baptist Covenant - an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically and theological Baptist groups throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members - can set an example for the church at large by joining together around the biblical mandate to promote social justice for the poor.

"If we can do it, maybe other Christians can do it as well," he said.

The Atlanta meeting grew out of a year of planning and was scheduled to follow a mid-winter joint meeting of the four largest predominantly African-American Baptist groups in the United States - the National Baptist Convention, USA; the National Baptist Convention of America; the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.

Underwood quoted Martin Luther King's dream that "one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."

"It is fitting that today, on these red hills of Georgia, Baptist have come together and taken a step forward in the long journey to achieve Dr. King's dream," Underwood said.

While the three-day Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant program includes representatives from a wide range of Baptist groups in North America, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention - the nation's largest Baptist fellowship - were noticeably absent.

The SBC withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and its regional affiliate, the North American Baptist Fellowship, several years ago. Most participants in the New Baptist Covenant event belong to the regional BWA fellowship.

But Carter noted he has developed "a wonderful relationship" with SBC President Frank Page. Carter said he plans to report to Page about the Atlanta event in the near future with a hope that initiatives will emerge with which Southern Baptists will want to cooperate.

Carter expressed his desire that the New Baptist Covenant meeting would maintain an "all-inclusive" posture and "non-critical" tone - and that it steer clear of partisan politics.

Critics had charged the event - which not only features Carter but also former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore - was designed to give Democrats an edge with Baptists prior to the Super Tuesday primaries.

Of the three prominent Republicans who had agreed to participate in the event - presidential candidate former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa - both Huckabee and Graham withdrew. 

Carter said he was "not frustrated" by the organizers' inability to attract more high-profile Republicans as program personalities, and he expressed confidence that Republicans and Democrats probably would be roughly equal in number among conference participants in general.

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