Baptist leaders challenged at summit to exit comfort zones,
build the Beloved Community
By Aaron Weaver and Carrie McGuffin
ATLANTA — The pastor of the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged a diverse group of Baptist leaders Wednesday to move outside their comfort zones to create covenant community. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, called for “holy agitation,” the courage to be unsettled and the power of difficult conversations.
“It is in the context of this creative and redemptive agitation that the Holy Spirit does its best work,” Warnock said. “Jesus talked about the pearl of great price — well there are no pearls without agitation. …Come out of the comfort zone, whatever the differences and nuances of our theology, theology ought to mean good news to the poor.”
Warnock applauded the efforts of the New Baptist Covenant, which kicked off its 2015 summit earlier Wednesday with a reception at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The group of Baptist leaders gathered to hear greetings from President Jimmy Carter, who launched the New Baptist Covenant movement in 2007 to break down barriers of race, theology and geography among Baptists to advance Jesus’ vision of transformation and reconciliation in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
“God says, ‘I will bless you when you move from comfort to covenant,’” Warnock said. “Thank God for this New Baptist Covenant [which] bears witness to God’s kingdom, imbued with love and justice and portends the realization of what Dr. King called the ‘beloved community.’ Thank God for this new covenant — it is a harbinger of hope in a world and in a church divided as President Carter has laid out, by race and by theology and by geography.”
A Wednesday panel discussion explored the future of the Baptist family and ways churches and partners could collaborate together to strengthen one another. The panel, which included Clifford Johnson, president of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas and Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, shared their thoughts on the need to have meaningful and hard conversations within the Baptist family.
Paynter emphasized the need to forge an identity together, claiming the lordship of Christ and pursuing “holy friendship” across racial lines.
“As part of our cooperative venture, identity becomes a work, not a byproduct. Identity becomes a focus, not just a hood ornament,” Paynter said. “We can’t just live in a comfort zone of identity. This is a time when we must forge identity.”
“Part of our challenge is to not be found wanting at the workers bench. We have to knock off something. We have to build the fire underneath it and forge an identity to which we are welding that says, first we are God’s. Friendship is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Coming together in a covenant, the challenge is not to work alongside our labels, but it is to just drop those things and become true friends.”
Being ‘Jesus Baptists’
The opening day of the summit concluded with a time of worship, highlighting covenants of action and discussing the challenges of being in covenant. Luis Cortés, president and CEO of Esperanza, the largest Hispanic faith-based evangelical network in the United States, challenged the group to overcome prejudice and stereotypes and other “-isms” to become united together as “Jesus Baptists.”
“Are you a CNN or FOX Baptist?” Cortés asked. “Because I hope we leave here as Jesus Baptists. …You don’t have to agree, but you must try to understand. We must see beyond what we know. We must begin to see cultural stereotypes for what they are.”
Creating Covenants of Action
During the second day of the summit, attendees heard reports from current and prospective Covenant of Action sites, outlining plans for pursuing reconciliation and transformation in more than 20 communities across the United States in 2015. The group heard updates on current and prospective Covenant of Action partnerships between Baptist churches in Decatur, Ga., Gainesville, Ga., Hickory, N.C., Huntsville, Ala., Macon, Ga., Nacogdoches, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., Snellville, Ga., Wilton and Norwalk, Conn., Winston-Salem, N.C., Atlanta, New York City, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and San Antonio.
At the 2013 New Baptist Covenant Summit, Baptist churches from Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and Birmingham, Ala., announced that they were entering into covenants of action to seek reconciliation and transformation in their communities through cooperative missions and advocacy to improve literacy rates among youth (Atlanta), alleviate poverty (St. Louis), reduce childhood hunger (Birmingham) and combat predatory lending (Dallas).
Building the Beloved Community
The 2015 summit concluded Thursday with a worship service focused on the theme of “creating a new world through covenant.” Amy Butler, senior minister of the historic Riverside Church in New York City, reflected on her trip to Ferguson, Mo., following the St. Louis grand jury’s decision not to return an indictment in the death of Michael Brown.
“What is the role of the church in the most pressing issues in our society,” Butler said she had been asking herself. “Does the church have any relevance for a future world.”
Upon returning from Ferguson, Butler said she saw these questions in a new way.
“As I saw the grief of my congregation, I was reminded that these are not theoretical questions anymore,” Butler said. “Our worship services and potlucks are doing nothing to stop Michael Brown from dying in the middle of the street.”
“Somehow, someway the church can bridge the gap that was so unbridgeable before. This is the beloved community,” Butler said. “This is what the world needs. This is the church. Many people wonder about the future of the church. I wonder about the future of the church. …The world — all of us — desperately needs the best expression of the church.”
Butler suggested that the church as an institution must change, and stressed that the church needs to reclaim its foundational identity and calling to stand alongside the oppressed.
“Maybe what we don’t need is an institution as we’ve come to know it. Maybe what we need is for the church to recall the core of its identity, to let go of the trappings of the past in whatever way we must to become the beloved community — to stand on the side of the oppressed. Yes, this is our ancient foundational call,” Butler said.
“It’s harder for us to think about living in community with churches that we don’t want to be affiliated with. We must stand in the gap, bridge the divide…to midwife the birth of a common ground. I desperately hope that is why all of us are here at the New Baptist Covenant, to form covenants of action to transform our communities. …We must stand in the gap. We must do the hard and beautiful work of building the beloved community of the future.”
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.