Alliance Baptists address racial justice, reconciliation in annual gathering

The meeting in Portland, Maine, also featured a call to engage multiculturalism in authentic ways.

By Relma Hargus

The Alliance of Baptists went north for its annual gathering this year, taking its theme of racial and economic justice to the church where in 1926 Hilda Libby Ives became the first woman ordained as a Christian minister in Maine — a fitting site for a group whose covenant includes a commitment to the “freedom of the local church … to ordain whom it perceives as gifted for ministry, male or female.”

However, it is unlikely that the planners of the 2014 Annual Gathering of the Alliance of Baptists in Portland, Maine, had requested a hailstorm during the closing worship at Williston-Immanuel United Church, led by Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou.

AOB 1Nevertheless, shortly after Sekou — an author, and theologian who is pastor for formation and justice at First Baptist Church in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood — described his grandmother’s prayers for relief during a life-threatening fever he experienced as a child and the unexpected hailstorm that allowed her to surround him with life-saving ice, an usher walked down to tell Sekou and the congregation that it was indeed hailing outside.

In addition to innovative worship, the gathering followed its traditional pattern of provocative discussion topics and challenging workshops throughout the weekend. During the annual business meeting, members addressed such subjects as equity for farm workers, racial justice and reconciliation, the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, and religious liberty in a multicultural world. They also called on Alliance congregations and members to “join the broader Christian and interfaith community in speaking out against the system of mass incarceration and the negative impact it has had on communities of color and poor people.”

William Michael Kondrath and Marie Onwubuariri began the weekend with a diversity training session that provided guidance in engaging authentically in multicultural situations. Kondrath is a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. Onwubuariri is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin.

The two emphasized taking ownership of one’s own thoughts and feelings through the use of “I language” while also cautioning that language such as “I’m better than …” or “I’m less than…”—even when not expressed aloud—can “get in the way” of authentic interaction with others who are different.

They also stressed that genuine interaction involves “more than good manners” and calls for the celebration of both similarities and differences and true engagement in potentially uncomfortable conversation that involves actual contact with the other.

Workshop leaders included Curtiss Paul DeYoung, a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.; Kenneth Meyers, minister of Christian formation and education at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Claire McKeever-Burgett, program interpretation manager for Upper Room Ministries in Nashville, Tenn.; Maria Teresa Palmer, a member of the town council in Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In addition, Lindsay C. Comstock, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, urged people to remember the connection between faith and farm workers and to specifically express gratitude and concern for them during table blessings. Community organizers Michael-Ray Mathews and Tim Lilienthal explored the need for “radicalizing conversations to awaken people concerning faith, race and the economy” and Irene Monroe, an ordained minister, religion columnist and activist, spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

A concert Friday night by the University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers — the school’s premier a cappella vocal ensemble — and a focus Sunday on the Christian and Muslim texts that feature Abraham, Sarah and Hagar led by Karen Thomas Smith, chaplain at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, were also highlights of the gathering.

Officers elected for the coming year are Mike Castle, pastor of Harmony Creek United Church of Christ in Kettering, Ohio, president; Leslie Withers, church administrator at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., treasurer; April Baker, pastor of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., vice president; and Steve Jolly, pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., secretary.