BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ABP) — Planners of a Jan. 31 gathering of diverse Baptist groups hope a national mood set by the election of America's first African-American president will spill over into renewed relationships between black and white Baptists.
"We are very excited in this time of a new atmosphere in the entire country to do some work to bring together a larger sense of the Baptist family," said Gary Furr, co-chairman of a steering committee planning the first of a series of regional gatherings of an interracial network known as the New Baptist Covenant.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who spearheaded the movement that prompted some 15,000 Baptists from 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists across North America to attend a national meeting a year ago in Atlanta, is keynote speaker for the first of four regional repeats of the gathering scheduled for 2009.
It will be held in Birmingham, Ala. — significant for its role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Sessions for the first event are scheduled at four sites: 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and St. Paul's United Methodist Church, all within walking distance of each other in the downtown part of the city.
The historically black 16th Street Church is a particularly symbolic location, because it is where one of the most shocking incidents of the African-American struggle for civil rights took place. On Sept. 15, 1963, at the end of a tumultuous summer of anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, a bomb set by segregationists exploded at the church. It killed four young girls attending Sunday School.
Joining Carter on the program are Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, and Robert Smith, associate professor of divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School.
Small groups will focus on special interests including health care, poverty and race.
"I am proud to be a part of the New Baptist Covenant initiative," said Arthur Price, pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church and the planning team's other co-chair. "If ever there is a time when God's people must come together and be on one accord to make an impact in our churches and the culture around us for Christ, it is now."
Furr — the white pastor of suburban Vestavia Hills Baptist Church — said he and Price, who is black, have been developing a friendship for several years and have done a number of things together, so planning the meeting together was a natural thing.
Particularly with regard to the helping the poor, Furr said he hopes the event will drive home the message that "we need one another and we need to help one another."
"Our hopes for this event are, first of all, it will be a time of inspiration, worship and challenge to all of us to build community and to forge new relationships with one another and pledge to cooperate with one another more fully," Furr said. "Our greatest hope is that people go home with a new set of relationships."
Jimmy Allen, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and coordinator for the national New Baptist Covenant celebration, said other regional gatherings are scheduled April 2-4 in Kansas City, Mo.; April 23-24 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Aug. 6-7 in Norman, Okla. A fifth regional gathering is being planned in Chicago, with a tentative date in June 2010, and a triennial national gathering is planned for 2011.
A Baptist theological student network formed out of the New Baptist Covenant has also set meetings for March 26-28 at Mercer University in Georgia.
Allen said each regional gathering is planned by a local steering committee, and he serves as a volunteer coordinator to help with scheduling and other matters when asked. "Each of the meetings comes out of a grass-roots response to the national meeting and the aftermath of it," he said.
Planning for the New Baptist Covenant goes back to April 10, 2006, when Carter, a prominent Baptist layman, and Mercer University President Bill Underwood convened 18 Baptist leaders for a meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Out of that meeting came a document called A North American Baptist Covenant pledging to:
— "Create an authentic and prophetic Baptist voice for these complex times;
— "Emphasize traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality; and,
— "Promote peace with justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity."
A follow-up meeting of 80 representatives of more than 30 Baptist organizations held Jan. 9, 2007, firmed up plans for a national gathering Jan. 30 — Feb. 1, 2008, organized around a theme based on Luke 4:18-19, in which Jesus reads from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release of the captives, and the recovering of sight of the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
At the meeting last year, Carter described the New Baptist Covenant as "the most momentous event of my religious life."
The stated purpose for the regional gatherings is to "unite Baptists from our various conventions, fellowships and organizations to celebrate, exhort, network and encourage one another in fulfilling the obligations of our new Baptist Covenant."
"We are very excited about the possibility of a full crowd coming for this, and that President Carter is coming," Furr said of the Birmingham gathering. "We're looking forward to a wonderful time."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
The New Baptist Covenant website is here.
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