June 26, 2020
By Aaron Weaver and Carrie Harris
DECATUR, Ga.—What would it mean to live boldly in the midst of the harsh realities of COVID-19 and racial injustice? Will we, like Joseph of Arimathea, have the courage to show up? Will we as a Fellowship have the courage to go together with bold faithfulness into a resurrected and reimagined new future?
Mary Alice Birdwhistell, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, posed these questions to attendees during the closing worship service of the 2020 virtual General Assembly streamed on Facebook Premiere and Vimeo.
Preaching from Mark 15:42-47, Birdwhistell recounted a difficult experience earlier this year burying a dear friend and beloved church member who passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
“Nothing prepared me for it, because nothing could have prepared me for the hard and holy work of burying someone you love. And as I read today’s text in the Gospel of Mark, as Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asked to bury the body of Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if he has any idea what is in store for him—if he knows just how hard and just how holy it will be to bury someone he loves.”
Birdwhistell points out that some read this scripture and note that he only happens to show up after Jesus’ death, after the council, which he belonged to, voted to crucify Jesus.
“That’s convenient timing isn’t it. Why didn’t he show up for Jesus earlier,” Birdwhistell asked. “Why didn’t he speak up sooner? Those are valid questions.”
“We all need to consider in situations when we too have shown up far too late and when our prophetic witness and faithful actions in the world are long overdue,” Birdwhistell said.
While the disciples have fled and forsaken Jesus, it was Joseph who went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. “All we know is that Joseph finally shows up and does the hard and holy work that needs to be done,” she continued, noting that some might find it “odd” to preach on Jesus’ death in midst of a global pandemic.
“At a time when so many people seem to think that churches may not survive a crisis of this magnitude, some think that the trouble you and I are going to these days is rather odd. With death tolls climbing, the world economy crashing and church budgets dwindling…so many look at us with a puzzled look and say, ‘why bother,” Birdwhistell said.
She said some ask the same question of the Fellowship.
“And yet, what would it mean for us, like Joseph, to live boldly in this season? Even if to the rest of the world, it looks like caring for something that has already been declared dead,” Birdwhistell said. “Friends, what if that is actually the hardest and holiest work that you and I could ever do? I must admit that something that has deeply sustained me in this season has been the bold and beautiful work that is taking place within our Fellowship.”
Birdwhistell cited CBF chaplain Will Runyon’s bold presence at the bedside of countless COVID-19 patients in Albany, Ga., and the bold mission of CBF field personnel Missy Ward Angalla to care for more than 700 of her refugee neighbors in Uganda who had gone days without food and medical care during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Friends, there is bold and beautiful work that is happening all around us,” she said. “And yet, we get these beautiful glimpses of this Kingdom, that we, like Joseph, are expectantly waiting and we also admit the truth that it is not fully here yet—not by any stretch of the imagination. After all, today’s text is about burying a body, not celebrating a resurrection. Because that’s the thing about resurrection, it can’t happen without a death….And I can’t help, but ask myself what is within me, within us, within our church, within our communities and even within our Fellowship that needs to die and to be buried in order for God to resurrect something new and beautiful.
“What are the programs that may have served a significant purpose at one time, but are no longer relevant in 2020? What are the systems that work within us that are actually doing more harm than they are good? What are the policies and practices that are supporting institutions rather than people who are beloved in the kingdom of God? And what ways are we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether explicitly or complicitly hurting people of color, victims of abuse, our LGBTQ siblings, people living in marginalized communities and our neighbors whether they live down the street or across the border? Friends, what is it that needs to die within us for God to resurrect something new? And how might you and I go boldly about doing that hard and holy Kingdom-building work?”
Death and despair never get the last word of God’s story, Birdwhistell told the assembly.
“As we continue to face the harsh realities of COVID-19 and as we continue to face these difficult days of racial injustice, as we continue to face these days in our churches and in our communities and world, as we face what may feel like death or what very well may be death itself, friends what will our posture be? Will we, like Joseph, finally have the courage to show up? Will we boldly and expectantly hope against hope that despite everything happening within us and all around us that God will still make a way?
“Will we, as pastors, as lay leaders, as chaplains and field personnel, as teachers and professors, as social workers and ministers, will we as a Fellowship have the courage to go together with bold faithfulness into a resurrected and reimagined new future together? My friends, may we be willing to trust God as we take this next brave step forward even if to the rest of the world, it looks only like we are moving toward death because I believe it may be the hardest and holiest work that you and I will ever do.”
Welcome to the Lord’s Table
Shaun King, senior pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., which hosted portions of the 2020 virtual General Assembly, opened the closing worship service with words of welcome and an invitation to Cooperative Baptists to gather at the end of the hour around the Lord’s Table from their homes with bread and cup.
“When we come to that meal at the end of this hour, we will say words that we are accustomed to saying and hearing, we will say words about remembering. But this is more than a meal of reminiscing, right?” said King. “We’re moving in this hour of worship toward a moment when we actually, literally, tangibly, physically, remember this body that we share in a very dismembering world. We are dismembered in every imaginable way by every kind of chasm that separates us, right? Ideologically, theologically, politically. And yet this meal, this hour has the capacity if we let it. To show us within our worshipful imagination, a different kind of world in which the body of the living, breathing, resurrected Christ is remembered, right where you are.”
Extending Hope and Hospitality in St. Louis
During his first months as CBF Executive Coordinator, Paul Baxley had the opportunity to visit CBF field personnel Mira and Sasha Zivanov in St. Louis, Mo., volunteering at a food pantry ministry for immigrant families.
“I couldn’t help but notice the depth of relationship that Mira and Sasha had for the people they were serving,” Baxley said. “I couldn’t help but notice the strong bonds of connection they had built with members of Kirkwood Baptist Church and other congregations there in the St Louis area who have become partners with them in their ministry in every way imaginable. As I walked away from that morning, that glimpse of their ministry, I recognized I’d come face to face with a beautiful demonstration of our Fellowship’s unique approach to global mission.”
The Assembly also had an opportunity to be introduced to the Zivanovs’ ministry in St. Louis as part of the 2020-21 CBF Offering for Global Missions emphasis.
For nearly 30 years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has commissioned almost 400 women and men to serve around the world through CBF Global Missions. This year, the Fellowship commissions career field personnel Christine, who will serve in Lebanon, focusing on social work ministry, trauma therapy and capacity building within refugee and migrant populations. She will also be available as a regional resource for other field personnel in Africa and the Middle East with targeted therapies to refugee populations.
CBF Global Missions also commissioned Hannah Turner to the Global Service Corps, where she will serve alongside CBF field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt and their Welcome House ministries in Raleigh, N.C.
Also recognized to be commissioned to serve were four CBF Church Starters: Bill Sloan of Del Sol Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, George Zapata of Impact Church in Harlingen, Texas, Henry Creel of The Church at Hillcrest in Mobile, Alabama, and Xiomara Reboyras Ortiz of Iglesia Bautista Nuevo Pacto in Deland, Florida.
The CBF Council on Endorsement also commissioned 27 women and men to serve as CBF chaplains and pastoral counselors in various settings in the United States and around the world.
Music and Communion
Music for the closing worship service of the virtual Assembly was led by the worship leaders of Johns Creek Baptist Church. Scripture reading was offered by Ruth Cuellar, who serves as the pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Buen Pastor in Newnan, Ga., and Sara Crocker, student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and senior lecturer at Clemson University, led the Assembly in the invocation.
To conclude the Assembly, Paul Baxley and CBF Associate Coordinator of Operations and Outreach, Kasey Jones, called Cooperative Baptists to gather around the Lord’s Table at their family tables, leading participants in a time of celebrating Communion together.
Friday Morning Plenary Session Recap
Earlier in the day, during the morning plenary session streamed live from Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., attendees adopted a Governing Board proposal to adjust the 2020-2021 budget process (read more here) and elected nominees to the CBF’s governance bodies including new CBF Moderator-Elect Patricia Wilson (read more here).
CBF also launched into the second phase of its journey Toward Bold Faithfulness by reporting to attendees at the Friday plenary on the findings of the prayerful discovery process and transitioning into the process of faithful response. Learn more here.
Missions Excellence Awards
The CBF Missions Council also announced the following 2020 recipients of its excellence award: Kensington Baptist Church of Kensington, Md., Iglesia Bautista de Metropolis of San Juan, Puerto Rico; and First Baptist Church on Fifth of Winston-Salem, N.C. Watch the linked videos to learn about the great work of these congregations in their communities and around the world.
Bold Faithfulness in Uganda
Assembly attendees also heard a message from CBF field personnel Jade and Shelah Acker of Kampala, Uganda, where they have served for the past 12 years as founders of Refuge and Hope International. With more than 1.4 million refugees from surrounding countries, the Ackers have a thriving ministry that began with just them and has grown to a team of more than 70.
“Today, many people are dealing with uncertainty,” said Jade Acker reflecting on the pandemic. “Like the whole world, we’re wondering what’s going to happen next. We want to be faithful, remain faithful and move forward in bold faith. Bold faithfulness means simply being available. God is working and we join him. Bold faithfulness is investing in individuals. It’s showing up, listening and being available to God’s calling.”
Jade recounted that when he and Shelah first moved to Uganda in 2008 they experienced much uncertainty themselves.
“We weren’t really sure what we were going to do, but God had called us here,” Jade said. “we didn’t know anyone, but God provided the way. We simply were available. We had a passion for refugees, and that passion, and our availability of being here in Uganda and our past experiences brought us together for the ministry that God had prepared.”
Shelah said that bold faithfulness means investing in individuals.
“Bold faithfulness always means investing in individuals,” she said. “It has always been the philosophy of Refuge & Hope to invest in individual people and people’s lives. Investing in lives has an eternal impact. That way, when programs might fall apart or get interrupted, the things that you have invested in people, those are never taken away.”
Shelah spoke about the plight of refugees, noting that many must start over several times in their lives to begin again. She shared stories of refugees who found hope and community and have been able to build a new life and “go from survival to thriving.”
“Through you and through your partnership with the CBF Offering for Global Missions and your churches, and with us here in Uganda, you’re making a difference,” Shelah said. “You’re actually having a direct impact on people’s lives and individual’s lives are being transformed here in Uganda. We’re grateful to you. Thank you.”
McEntyre: “Time to work for racial justice is now”
The Friday morning plenary concluded with incoming CBF Moderator Carol McEntyre, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Columbia, Mo., sharing her hopes and dreams for the Fellowship. McEntyre shared about her experience in the role of Moderator-Elect serving on the Discovery Team of the Toward Bold Faithfulness initiative, noting that during a survey conducted in January the Fellowship “named engaging diversity as one of the most urgent needs of our congregations and CBF at large” prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
“We also named racial reconciliation and justice as one of the most urgent needs of our local communities,” McEntyre said. “In addition, we named desiring diversity and aspirational diversity as one of the gifts of our churches and our Fellowship. So there is a hope, a longing, and a desire for more diversity within our churches and within CBF. The individuals and churches who make up our Fellowship were thinking about diversity and racial justice prior to the events of the last few weeks. This has been on our hearts and minds. I wonder if perhaps the Holy Spirit has been preparing us to respond to this pivotal moment in our country’s history.”
McEntyre noted that while churches in CBF are in different places of engagement with regard to racial justice and reconciliation, her hope is that congregations will take action.
“My dream for the Fellowship is that we would seize this moment, this moment filled with possibility and hope and equip our churches to take the next step on their journey….The time to work for racial justice is now.”
For coverage of the events, including news, photos and videos, please visit www.cbf.net/virtualassembly.
CBF is a Christian network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.