I have to confess that my Baptist pride got the best of me. I was in Beijing with a rather motley crew of religious sorts . . . a Buddhist teacher from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California, a Methodist bishop from Illinois, a Muslim doctor from Ohio, a Catholic priest from DC and a handful of Baptists (this story has all the makings of a really bad joke–you know, the one that starts with “So . . . a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Muslim, a Catholic and a half dozen Baptists go to Beijing . . . . “
We were in Beijing at the invitation of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the folks responsible for religion in China. More than a year ago, our Chinese friends had made a similar journey to the US at the invitation of Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, CBF and the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington. Our Chinese friends were now returning the favor. We were there to talk about religion in our two nations–the cultural realities that cause differences and unique perspectives, the ways we understood religious freedom, the religious histories of our two countries. It was heady stuff, a powerful opportunity to shape our own perspectives on China and the perspectives of our Chinese friends on the United States.
Toward the end of our time in Beijing, we made our way to the headquarters of Islam in China, a splendid mosque and cultural center near the center of the city. We were greeted warmly. Our host made a wonderful welcoming speech, followed by a response from Dee Froeber, Minister to Internationals at Forest Hills.
You need to know that twenty years ago, Forest Hills began a ministry to internationals in Raleigh. A low level Chinese diplomat came down to see the ministry. That diplomat is now the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He and Dee had worked out the delegation exchange and Forest Hills had supported the effort.
Dee asked for a greeting from Dr. Ghulam N. Mir, the American Muslim representing the Islamic Society of North America. Dr. Mir, part of our American delegation, could hardly hold his composure as he spoke because he was so surprised to discover the vitality of Islam in China.
And then came my moment of Baptist pride! Our Chinese Muslim host responded to the greeting from his Muslim brother. He also could barely contain his emotions. “This is the very first time,” he said, “that I have ever heard the voice of an American Muslim.”
I felt a chill pass through my body. This moment had been made possible by a bunch of Baptists and specifically by a Baptist church in Raleigh, North Carolina that had taken its Baptist roots seriously and made them mean something, not in the seventeenth century or the eighteenth century, but in the twenty-first century. That church had determined to make a difference by bringing together a couple of Muslim brothers on the other side of the world in the hopes that such a reunion might accomplish something for the cause of religious freedom in the world.
I’m trying hard to keep the proper modicum of humility about the whole thing. But . . . I must confess that I’m losing the battle. Thanks, Forest Hills, for being the best sort of Baptist church . . . and thanks for bringing the rest of us along with you by reminding us that it does matter to have the word “Baptist” in your name.