Baptists look to future action, social response as unity gathering concludes

By Carla Wynn Davis
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Photo: Billy Howard

ATLANTA-With a closing challenge to love God and love others, former President Jimmy Carter capped the three-day Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant Feb. 1 in Atlanta, ending a day that focused on future unified action and developing response to immigration, hunger, health care and other social issues.

"I feel that this New Baptist Covenant assembly is based on … love God and love the person standing in front of you at any time," Carter said.

And that love must extend to other Baptists, including those who have criticized the three-day gathering, said former President Bill Clinton during the evening plenary session.

"The reason we have to love each other is that all of us might be wrong," he said. "We must approach those who disagree with an outstretched hand not a clenched fist. … You must respond in a spirit of love."

That means exploring ways to work together, not giving up differences but finding "that our common humanity matters more," he said. "We should redouble our efforts to serve the poor, the sick and the needy."

Before Clinton, Charles Adams, the pastor of Hartford Baptist Church in Detroit, preached about setting the captive free, challenging Baptists to seize freedom in Christ for the good of the world. There are "Baptists in our churches that have not yet learned that to be Baptist is to be free in Christ," he said. "Let us say, 'Give me Jesus and a place to stand, and we will change the world!'"

"All people are God's people. All churches are God's churches…but there are walls that divide us-terrifying walls," he said. "In Christ, the walls have been broken down."

While Carter said leaders of the participating Baptist organizations will assemble for a follow-up meeting in March, the next steps beyond this Baptist gathering depend largely on response from the estimated 15,000 in attendance. 

"This is an unprecedented meeting," Carter said in an afternoon press conference. "Where we go from here will be very important."

"The next steps have already begun," said David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship. "We're trying to discern the way the spirit is blowing."

Exploring ways to work together has been a goal of convocation from the beginning.

"At this very moment the light of Christ is needed more than ever," said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in a morning session address about public policy and hunger. "We can dispel the darkness. We can build hope where there is hopelessness."

One in seven people still go to bed hungry, Grassley said, and increased food productivity has not solved the worldwide hunger problem. More must be done to ensure food security, emphasize rural development, tear down international trade barriers and encourage open markets.

"As individuals united in partnership, we can make a difference," Grassley said. "If there was every a time for unity, now is the moment."

The morning session also included comments from Grassley on immigration and a challenge from former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher to address imbalances in the U.S. health care system.

"It's a moral issue when the public hospitals of this country are having trouble keeping their doors open," Satcher said. "This country needs a commitment to universal access to care, and we need it soon."

Outreach efforts to those in need are part of welcoming strangers, said Joel Gregory, professor of preaching at Baylor University's Truett Seminary, in a morning sermon. Calling the stranger central to God's concern, he urged Baptists to not generalize scripture but understand God's particular call to be kind to strangers they meet everyday. 

"We often don't harm the other, but we don't acknowledge the other. We just go past the other," he said. "Behind the face of the stranger is the face of Jesus."

Through afternoon special interest sessions, Baptists explored social issues and practical ways to minister. They learned that addressing pandemics like HIV/AIDS can begin with small steps and that congregations can help end sexual exploitation in the United States. They discussed peacemaking, interfaith relations, criminal justice and how churches can break the cycle of poverty.

In a prophetic preaching conference, James Forbes, founding president of Healing of the Nations Foundation and retired professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, acknowledged excitement that comes when long-standing barriers between God's people finally fall.

"God blesses such convocations with special grace," he said. "So the Spirit comes. Do you feel it? Have you felt it walking up and down these halls? You've almost felt like singing, 'There's a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.'"

Throughout the event, program chair Jimmy Allen asked attendees whether the convocation would be a moment or a movement. During the final plenary session he concluded that "we are part of a movement moving on."

"These are wonderful days of possibility," he said.