A black gospel violinist. A Puerto Rican receiving a historic selection for a top board position. A fiery, 60-year-old Native American woman preacher. A Korean-born man newly appointed as the director of a doctor of ministry program. A young adult caucus, growing and gaining representation. A 98-year-old woman receiving an award and working on her second book. A 20-something Brazilian-American man who rapped the benediction.
Where could you have found all of this and much more? At the Biennial Mission Summit of American Baptist Churches USA, of course, which met in Portland, Ore., June 29 through July 2.
ABC-USA is said to be the most diverse Protestant denomination in North America, and it really shows at these national events. Its diversity extends beyond just ethnicity and culture and includes much theological and political diversity as well.
Navigating these realities and keeping the family together are tasks that have been difficult, to say the least. ABC-USA also finds itself in the midst of many transitions. Three top staff positions have changed hands in the last couple of years, including Lee Spitzer taking the helm as general secretary just months ago.
The diversity of the Kingdom of God was not just showcased but affirmed from the pulpit. Sharon Koh, executive director of International Ministries, said, “When I miss out on diversity, I miss out on the fuller image of God.” Jeffrey Haggray, executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, said, “Can we see God as artist, weaving us together in this diversity that we sometimes reject?” One of the worship songs in which we were led said simply but powerfully, “Draw the circle wide.”
Today’s world remains segregated in many ways, and our ideological camps are growing further apart and more isolated. We live and respond in fear of the other. In this reality, such a display of diversity is refreshing and energizing.
But there was also the small room.
During one of the breakout sessions, I gathered with yet another diverse group of people in a small, crowded room. It was a learning opportunity hosted by the New Baptist Covenant, a movement started by President Jimmy Carter (a lifelong Baptist) in response to persistent racial and theological divisions among Baptists. Its current focus on reconciliation calls local congregations together in “Covenants of Action,” which “bring together Baptist churches from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to build relationships with each other and work together to create positive change in the community beyond their churches.” The last half of the session was an introduction to this initiative, but the first half was spent allowing all participants to introduce themselves and share stories that illustrate why they are drawn to the ministry of reconciliation.
In this room, as these stories were being shared, the atmosphere was quite different. Black senior citizens shared that, this year, they have felt feelings welling up inside of them that they haven’t felt since the 1960s. Parents with children who are minority races or sexualities spoke with trembling voices of their fear for their children. One person said that he almost didn’t come to the conference at all because of the ostracization that he and members of his congregation have felt at the hands of other Christians.
Almost every person shared something painful or sobering. Almost every person spoke with a marked desperation for better days and for privileged groups of people to understand the demands of true reconciliation. The room felt very heavy.
This was the small room. Out in the open, large room, in view of the masses and with cameras rolling, the promising diversity of ABC-USA was on display. But here, hidden away in that small and crowded meeting room, emerged the hidden-away stories of a reality that many prefer not to see: racism and prejudice are not just alive and well, but may be making a comeback.
Being together is not the same as being reconciled.
Paul spoke of this in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” Just as the reconciliation God accomplished on the cross came at a great cost, so too does our largely neglected ministry of reconciliation to one another cost something of us. It is not just deciding to play nice from here on out.
“If we are not ready to live reconciliation as a revolutionary movement of our time, we should not speak of it.” That was South African civil rights activist Allan Boesak’s message at a luncheon hosted by the New Baptist Covenant in June 2014 during the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A few ABC-USA leaders were also in attendance. Boesak is best known for his leadership in the anti-apartheid struggle. Boesak told the group at that time that reconciliation requires an uncomfortable encounter, not only with the other person but also with the self.
Boesak said something that has stuck with me since hearing his speech. “Reconciliation is not possible without a shift in power and equality.”
For majority populations, reconciliation is not easy because it requires us to come to terms with our complicity in — and ignorance of — what minority populations experience. It requires listening to stories that are hard to hear and tell us things about ourselves that we would rather not admit. It requires work to repair the damage done by our racist history. For minority populations, reconciliation is difficult because it can demand a willingness to forgive sins for which some are not willing to repent, or even aware of.
For me, it was indeed an uplifting conference that reminded us of all the ways God is still so powerfully at work. My respect for ABC-USA’s leadership only increases every time I attend these events and rub shoulders with them. But I was also in the “small room,” and it is my prayer that we will have the courage to venture into that room where the painful stories are told and where reconciliation begins. As the past director of ABHMS, Aidsand Wright-Riggins III, said, “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve arrived.”
In fact, I pray we have the courage to make the small room much bigger. There’s room for many more at the table.