By Jason Coker
A Rabbi, a Presbyterian minister and a Baptist preacher walk into a saloon… This sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it has been an integral part of my personal and professional life for nearly eight years. Rabbi Dr. Leah Cohen and Rev. Dr. David Graybill have been among my closest ministry friends since I have been the pastor at Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn.
Together, we helped start an initiative that included all our faith groups — Muslims, Jews, Christians, among others — to bring a refugee family to our town. We have preached in each other’s pulpits. David and I were guests of honor when Leah dedicated the new worship space at Temple B’nai Chaim. I even finished my dissertation in New Testament and Early Christianity in the synagogue’s library! Leah and I read a poem we wrote in David’s honor upon his retirement from Wilton Presbyterian Church (22 years of faithful ministry!). When Leah became executive director at the Joseph Slivka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, we decided to begin driving to New Haven to continue our monthly lunches together.
I love them, they love each other and they love me. We have shaped each other’s theology, worldviews, concepts of ministry and even identity. Our friendship has dramatically formed us together.
When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship announced its new tagline “Forming Together,” I immediately thought of my colleagues and friends, David and Leah. Maybe I should have thought more about my church’s place within the Fellowship or our place in the Baptist Fellowship of the Northeast (BFN) or, even more personally, my place in CBF or the BFN. Instead, I thought of David and Leah because they have had such a profound impact on my life and ministry through their friendship. I mean, all our families celebrated Sukkot at Leah’s house in the Sukkah she built!
Don’t imagine that we never disagree, either! When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from several multinational corporations that do business in Israel and encouraged other faith groups in the United States to do the same, we had some serious conversations. When the Israeli military bombed Gaza for several months last year, we had some serious conversations. Put simply, we don’t always agree, but that’s a major way we shape each other and at the end of the day our friendship is more important than our disagreements.
Forming Together gives us an opportunity to develop a theology of fellowship. In this simple phrase — Forming Together — we can say with conviction that our fellowship is more important than our disagreements; but even in our disagreements, we can shape each other’s theology, worldview and even identity. We can, and do, mold each other through our dialogues and discourses about difficult issues. Forming Together takes seriously our capacity to represent different beliefs while sharing a commitment to fellowship. We can do more (and be better) together!
Forming Together within CBF, we can send field personnel all over the world for global transformation in the name of and for the sake of Christ. Together, we can leverage our assets to transform rural poverty into rural development by partnering with the incredible people of Together for Hope, CBF’s rural poverty initiative and one of our most exemplary collective efforts as a Fellowship. Together, in our Fellowship we can form each other and be a part of God’s transformational work in our world.
In March, I had the privilege of going to Mississippi to participate in mission work with two CBF-partner churches from Texas. We all met in Shaw, Miss., where Lane Riley directs programs for Delta Hands for Hope — one of CBF’s Together for Hope sites. Lane is originally from South Carolina and grew up in First Baptist Church, Greenwood, S.C., a CBF partner congregation. Dallas’ Wilshire Baptist Church and Waco’s First Baptist Church landed in the middle of the Mississippi Delta and worked alongside local church folks from Shaw’s Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church and Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. After that week of cleaning, painting and children’s camp, Rock of Ages and Mt. Zion are planning to go to Dallas and Waco to join these two Texas churches in some of their local mission endeavors. Everyone involved experienced transformation from that trip!
These sorts of transformative experiences and relationships only happen when we are together. We are only formed when we are together. May we all let it be so.
K. Jason Coker is the pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn., and currently serves as Recorder of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Coker is also the founder of Delta Hands of Hope, a CBF Together for Hope rural poverty initiative site in his hometown of Shaw, Miss.