By Bob Allen
A century and a half after the Civil War divided Baptists in America into separate congregations predominantly black and white, a diverse group of U.S. Baptists is exploring ways to cross boundaries of identity, doctrine and ethnicity to collaborate in community service.
In 2008, former President Jimmy Carter convened more than 15,000 people representing over 30 Baptist organizations in a gathering called the New Baptist Covenant. His desire was to bring unity to a faith tradition fragmented enough to inspire the old saying: “I don’t belong to any organized religion. I’m a Baptist.”
Subsequent national and regional gatherings were held to focus not on the various controversies that caused Baptists to separate over 150 years, but common values they all share. Now, said planners of a meeting of participants of previous gatherings convened Nov. 21-22 in Atlanta, it’s time to move beyond talk.
“We’ve come to the New Baptist Covenant before as groups and enjoyed the camaraderie, enjoyed the worship and enjoyed the time together,” Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said at a New Baptist Covenant summit meeting at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga. “Now we’re in the enlistment part. We’ve had the inspiration, and now it’s time for the perspiration.”
This year Baptists in four cities — Dallas, Birmingham, St. Louis and Atlanta — and others in the Northwest United States region will develop covenant partnerships to work together in their communities to advance Jesus’ mission described in Luke 4 as: “The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Over the next four years, planners have a goal of 100 “covenants of action” between sectarian Baptist groups differentiated for historical reasons that participants now regard as second-tier.
“The New Baptist Covenant is getting ready to go into a new phase,” said Hannah McMahan, national coordinator of the New Baptist Covenant movement. “We’ve gathered here to make Covenant an action and not a philosophy.”
McMahan, who participated in the first New Baptist Covenant gathering as a student at Wake Forest Divinity School, said the experience made her proud to be a Baptist.
“What we know as Baptists, when we are at our best, is that when we embrace diversity we are opened to God,” she said. “That’s where we find God.”
“Each of us carries a piece of God, and when we extend ourselves, when we stretch ourselves, and we look over to another horizon by reaching out a hand — by caring for someone, by listening, by being heard — through those relationships we’re not just loving each other. We’re loving God.”
Jeff Haggray, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and past executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, said Baptists “have always been a people of mission action.”
“Baptists are those who say that we would rather see a sermon than hear one any day,” Haggray said. “We are those who believe that it’s not important how high you jump when your spirit gets happy but how straight you walk when your feet hit the ground.”
“Even though we’ve been a people of mission action since our inception, so often mission action is constrained by the stuff of this world,” he said. “We’ve done mission action in our own silos of geography, of race, of Baptist ideology, of theology, of politics, of ethnicity and so forth. And we’ve been separated from each other by boundaries and by fences that are not of God’s making but of humankind’s making. Through these covenants of action we’re going to climb those fences.”
Paynter said the Baptist witness is “not just about what we say,” but a mutual commitment “toward shared values and common understanding of Baptist principles that bind us together.”
“We recognize the autonomy of each of our congregations and each of our organizations, so what do we have to prove?” she asked. “We have to prove that we can work together. We have to be a witness to what we can do together — not for our own devotion or for our own identity — but to what we can accomplish across the country for the betterment of God’s kingdom.”