DECATUR, Ga. — At a Carter Center commissioning service Friday, innovative Baptist leaders from diverse traditions concluded a two-day summit by announcing cooperative service projects to promote literacy and combat hunger and predatory lending.
Church leaders from Dallas, Birmingham, Ala., St. Louis, Atlanta and the Northwest United States region participated and are part of the movement started by President Jimmy Carter in 2007 called the New Baptist Covenant. Its aim is to break down barriers of race, theology and geography among Baptists so that Jesus’ mandate in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke to proclaim good news to the poor and set the oppressed free can be realized.
The projects, called “Covenants of Action,” will meet specific needs of the communities represented.
Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church and Dr. George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, led the delegation from Dallas in a covenant to address the problem of predatory lending. The congregations will act “jointly to confront predatory lending practices that disproportionately harm the vulnerable … by educating our churches, advocating for more just laws, and creating alternative credit sources that promote the welfare of the lenders and borrowers alike.”
Participants from Birmingham, Ala., created a covenant to address the problem of hunger by partnering to provide nutritious food to school children who are provided free breakfast and lunch during the week, but are not guaranteed food over the weekend. The group will address “the systemic issues related to food justice through an ongoing educational dialogue designed to explore our participation in finding solutions to end hunger in our community.”
Atlanta participants announced a Covenant of Action focused on literacy among youth through “reading initiatives, increasing the number of public computer labs in churches, and by sponsoring workshops and training for parents on 21st century parenting.
Participants from St. Louis and the Northwest United States region plan to release their covenant of action in the coming weeks.
New Baptist Covenant National Coordinator Hannah McMahan said the New Baptist Covenant movement is about loving each other and finding ways to work side by side.
“This year we have five covenant partners. They have come here to make covenants of action, to covenant among diverse partners who live in their communities, to live together, to work to enhance Jesus’ Luke 4 vision in their community.”
She said over the next four years, “we plan to have over 100 covenants of action.”
Organizers said this third meeting of the New Baptist Covenant accelerated the movement on the local level. The inaugural celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in January 2008 brought together more than 15,000 people representing over 30 Baptist organizations. A second national New Baptist Covenant meeting in 2011 focused on the plight of incarcerated men and women and participants across the country were challenged to take on the difficult issue of restorative justice.
Over the course of the two-day summit, participants heard presentations from the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. and participated in conversations with panels of experts in transformative partnerships, advocacy and prison reform.
David Key, Baptist studies director at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, announced plans to launch a master’s level online course geared toward students at Baptist theological institutions titled “The ART (Action, Reconciliation, Transformation) of Social Justice: Rauschenbusch, King and Carter.
The course would offer an in-depth examination of Jesus’ mandate in the fourth chapter of Luke and feature a curriculum focused on the writings and contributions of five Baptists: Baptist theologian and pastor Walter Rauschenbusch who is regarded as the father of the social gospel movement; civil rights pioneers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King; and President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
The event ended on Friday with the service of celebration and commissioning at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Those gathered watched a video message from President Jimmy Carter who offered a word of encouragement for the group and expressed his excitement for their future work together.
“I am grateful and encouraged that you have chosen to participate in the New Baptist Covenant Summit – that you are here committing yourself to the goals of action, reconciliation and transformation. The New Baptist Covenant movement is dear to my heart. For too long, racial, theological and geographic barriers have separated our Baptist family. Your work here can change that and help to usher in a new age of shared ministries and fellowship. You came here to make covenants with God and each other, lending our stories to God’s eternal narrative for hope and healing of all creation.
Moss then addressed the group with a meditation on the persistent evil of racism in American society and the need for people of faith to work together and fight injustice.
“Not enough of us are raising our voices with moral courage for love and justice. Love without justice is weak sentimentality. Justice without love is naked brutality. To pretend or believe that the light came and racism ended with the election of President Obama is like saying cancer ended with the development of chemotherapy,” Moss said. “We must forever proclaim that God is love. And love is of God.”
The work and ministry of the New Baptist Covenant is supported by individual donors and from groups like the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, Calif., also announced financial support at the Summit.
The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically, and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. Representatives of these Baptist organizations have reaffirmed traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality, as well as their obligations as Christians to fulfill the biblical mandate to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.