Unity in our Diversity as Cooperative Baptists

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a new series called “Illuminations,” which aims to highlight stories of cooperation, unity and diversity from across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Illuminations is a communications initiative of the Illumination Project, a project of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders to illuminate the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, identify intentional processes to maintain and grow unity through cooperation. Learn more about the Illumination Project at

By Ray Higgins

When I was just stepping into the role with CBF Arkansas 12 years ago, I attended my first CBF Coordinators Meeting in Charleston, S.C.

We were eating dinner at Poogan’s Porch in the old downtown, and our host seated us right across the aisle from a table with four Catholic priests. As we were jockeying for our seats, one of the wise guys in our group blew our cover and told the priests that we were a group of Baptist preachers. While the priests were winding up their meal and we were in the middle of ours, one of the priests, Father McCaffrey, looked our direction and asked, “Would any of you happen to know Brooks Hays?”

Quite surprised, I proudly mentioned that I was the pastor of his home church in Little Rock. Father McCaffrey went on to talk about how he knew Brooks Hays personally and how much he admired him.

So, in a brief conversation in a restaurant, a priest hears the name Baptist and thinks of Brooks Hays, a Baptist layman, who was a well-known Sunday School teacher in his Baptist church, one of two layperson to become president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a U.S. Congressman from Arkansas who lost his bid for re-election in 1958 to a militant segregationist because of Hay’s stand for racial integration.

Through our 25 year partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, CBF Arkansas seeks to embody the spiritual genetics that produces Christian leaders within the Baptist tradition like Brooks Hays.

We partner with CBF in Global Missions as Shane and Dianne McNary serve the Roma people in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and as Greg and Sue Smith serve the Latino immigrant communities in Virginia. We have been there and seen them at work. One of our partner churches helped create the Fellowship’s South Africa Network.

After CBF began Together for Hope Arkansas (TFHAR) through CBF field personnel Ben and Leonora Newell’s 10 year ministry in Helena and Phillips County, CBFAR took responsibility for TFHAR, and through the leadership of Catherine Bahn, Mollie Palmer and Stacy Henderson, the focus for the last five years has been on literacy with children and leadership development for youth. We have just called our third leader, Janee’ Tisby, who will build on these programs. During TFHAR’s 14 year history, more than 40 college students have served as Student.Go interns through CBF Global Missions.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, we reached out to CBF Louisiana and CBF, and a retired business entrepreneur and Baptist layperson in Little Rock, Charles Ray, emerged as the National Coordinator for CBF’s Disaster Response. Over a nine year period, he developed that partnership with CBF. Disaster response teams across the Fellowship and beyond partnered with churches and relief organizations to care for people affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, and an earthquake (Haiti).

Through CBF’s It’s Time missional guide for churches, a precursor to Dawnings, CBF’s congregational renewal process, Zion Hill Baptist Church in Camden received a grant for a summer success reading program for K-6th graders. Magnolia Road Baptist Church in Jonesboro received a grant to develop a Community Services Center that provides food, clothing, and connections with social services for their community. Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock received a grant to start a Farmers Market on their campus. Now in its fifth year, the Hillcrest Farmers Market is open every Saturday. As one deacon describes it, “I have church outside on Saturday mornings, and church inside on Sunday mornings.”

Through these years, CBF leaders have toured Arkansas, meeting with churches and in leaders’ homes. CBF leaders Bo Prosser and Harry Rowland have led Dawnings retreats in two of our churches. Ruth Perkins Lee. CBF’s Director of Ministries, recently led a women’s retreat in a Little Rock church.

CBFAR has four peer learning groups for clergy funding by a grant from CBF. Chaplains receive endorsement and a network of support through CBF. Chaplain Steve Sullivan runs a VA rural clergy training program that networks with CBF in various states. Pam Durso and Baptist Women in Ministry support the callings of Baptist women to pastoral leadership. Devita Parnell, CBF’s Young Leader Ecosystem, helps us connect with and develop young adult leaders.

Eight years ago we moved the CBFAR office to the campus of Arkansas Baptist College, an historically black college (HBCU) founded in 1884. That partnership is maturing in the broader community of CBF and with the empowering vision of the New Baptist Covenant.

CBF Benefits provides ministry employees with life, disability and retirement benefits. The CBF Foundation manages at least one Arkansas church endowment and two scholarship funds: a CBFAR/Logue scholarship fund for seminary students; and a Together for Hope Arkansas scholarship fund for college students in Phillips County, Ark.

Regarding theological education, students from Arkansas attend (or have graduated from) Baylor’s Truett Seminary, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, the Baptist Seminary at Richmond, Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University, Wake Forest University School of Divinity and Duke Divinity School.

CBF Arkansas has three new church starts. One made it for about six months. One is almost 20 years old; and one is seven years old. As we continue to look and pray for church start opportunities, we are in conversation with CBF church starter Andy Hale and the CBF process for starting churches.

On news and information about religion and Baptist life, Baptists Today and Baptist News Global are our partners. FaithLab helps us and our churches with communications consults.

In our advocacy on issues of faith, justice and religious liberty, we partner with Stephen Reeves of CBF, and with CBF partners like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Baptist Center for Ethics. These partners help us with conversations about religious liberty, race relations and sexuality and gender.

Leaders in CBF Arkansas serve as leaders in CBF. Dr. Hal Bass served as CBF Moderator and named the 2012 Task Force. Last year, Dr. Matt Cook served as CBF Moderator. Dr. Charlie Fuller serves on the Governing Board and as Chair of the Illumination Project. Rev. Carolyn Staley has served as a CBF General Assembly theme interpreter, and the Rev. Dr. Wendell Griffen has been a CBF General Assembly keynote preacher who served on the Search Committee that called Suzii Paynter as Executive Coordinator. Dr. Patricia Griffen, current CBFAR Moderator, has served as a resource for the Sexuality Conference. Dr. Ryan Clark serves on the CBF Global Missions staff and Betsy Young on the Ministries staff. Arkansans have served on the old Coordinating Council and now serve on the CBF Missions Council (Dr. Chris Ellis) and the Ministries Council (Dr. Randy Hyde).

As I travel our state and around CBF-Land, I hear people talk about CBF as “my family,” “my spiritual home,” “my team.”

I hear clergy and laity talk about the genius of our polity —the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church. If you can believe it, we have two churches, both Baptist, that share the same campus. The historic church on that campus is welcoming but not affirming; the new church on that campus is welcoming and affirming. There have been no apocalyptic catastrophes and no one is being left behind.

There is unity in our diversity.

Our leaders and friends enjoy being engaged with a denomi-network (CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter’s term) that is free from bureaucratic baggage and institutional insanity. They are drawn in to a community that is forming together because Christ’s love compel us to maintain unity in our diversity, to accept and respect each person made in the image of God, and to be the presence of Christ in the world.

So that when a family member, a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance, a neighbor, a stranger or even an enemy hears the name “Baptist”….

Ray Higgins serves as coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas. Learn more about CBF Arkansas at

Additional Reading:

CBF and Alabama CBF: A deep and abiding unity (Illuminations Part #1)

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