How Baptists around the world can best organize and mobilize for relief and development work was at the top of the agenda last week for more than 300 participants at the Baptist World Alliance’s Annual Gathering in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Last year, several relief organizations related to BWA member bodies created the Baptist Relief and Development Network (BReaD), which has raised concerns among some BWA leaders who see it as competing with BWAid, the relief arm of the BWA.
In response BWA president Paul Msiza last year assembled a task force to seek ways to reconcile differences and find a path forward. He reported in Vancouver that he expects the task force to issue its report next year. The group met multiple times in Vancouver and will meet again in October.
The topic sparked a couple of sessions marked by strong disagreements, but Msiza and leaders involved in BReaD and BWAid offered a hopeful tone by the week’s end. Msiza said the time in Vancouver brought “a positive and productive meeting” for the task force and he offered an “appeal for support and prayer” during the BWA gathering.
“This is about God’s work,” he said. “Relief and development is a ministry God has given to the church. We cannot fail to respond.”
This year’s gathering met during a period of leadership transition among Baptists in North America. Both the president and general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship, one of six regional BWA bodies, are ending their terms and successors beginning theirs.
Samuel Tolbert, president of the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., International, will serve as the new NABF president and assumed office during the meeting.
“I look forward to us being Baptists and doing the things that we need to do to further the cause of this North American Baptist Fellowship,” Tolbert said. “[We’re] trying to get more people engaged — not only pastors, but the laity, and both men and women and certainly the challenging area of young people in Baptist churches around North America.”
The NABF’s general secretary, George Bullard, also participated in his last meeting in that role. After seven years in the part-time staff position, he will retire from the position at the end of July. His successor, Elijah Brown, will officially start in October. Brown will also continue to serve as executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a human rights advocacy organization based in suburban Washington.
“We are a network well-positioned to continue as a powerful witness, calling forth a Christ-centered vision of missions and justice,” Brown said as he urged Baptists in North America to engage in critical global issues.
The NABF, which held one separate meeting during the Annual Gathering, also heard reports from Canadian Baptist leaders who provided cultural context to their nation and discussed ministry efforts among Canadian Baptists. The meeting also included a discussion of human trafficking and potential Baptist responses.
Meanwhile, the BWA adopted three resolutions addressing key moral concerns. One dealt with “ministry to refugees,” a topic also considered in several forums during the week as Baptist bodies around the world reflected on ministering in the midst of record levels of displaced persons. In the resolution, the BWA urged “its member bodies, affiliated churches and individual believers to actively embrace opportunities for Christian ministry and witness that exemplify the biblical teaching to love the stranger.” The resolution also emphasized the importance of “Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves” and “being salt and light in ways that bring the values of our Lord into our culture.”
Another resolution addressed concerns about “violations of religious freedom in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.” The resolution notes “people of faith and houses of worship have been intentionally targeted” and churches and mosques destroyed. The resolution offered support with Baptists in the region and urged action from the United Nations.
A final resolution addressed the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in April of 2016. The first universal climate agreement, it includes many legally binding provisions to curb carbon emissions.
“[The BWA] laments that climate change is a current reality, resulting in rising sea levels, droughts, the spread of diseases, more violent storms, disruptions to animal species and greater food insecurity,” the resolution declares. “[A]ll of us have contributed to historic carbon levels, damaging God’s creation and harming our global neighbors, and … those of us in nations contributing more to climate change need to listen to the stories of those already impacted.”
The resolution also “urges global Baptists to develop a vibrant theology of creation care, educating and advocating for practices based on love of neighbor over economic gain.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Msiza called it “a very positive and encouraging week.”
“It’s encouraging to see that there’s so much commitment to the work and life of the Baptist World Alliance,” said Msiza, a South African pastor.
Looking back on his first year as BWA president, Msiza noted “the unique stories” of various Baptists he met in his travels. He highlighted meeting “displaced persons” in Germany and the United States. He particularly celebrates “seeing what God is doing.”
“The best part of the past year is being in the places of ministry where the bodies are serving to see individual churches and pastors and members who are doing so much for the Lord,” he said. “In the midst of all this pain [in the world], the Baptist people are allowing God to use them to really impact lives.”
Msiza flashed a broad smile as he told about meeting Middle Eastern refugees in Germany who local Baptists welcomed into their homes. He remembered a teenage refugee who declared he had “seen God’s love in what the churches have done for them.”
“He talks as a young man who has walked and walked and crossed borders: ‘I know that God loves us because now we have clothes and food and a place for sleeping,’” Msiza quoted the teenager saying.