The expression, “there at the beginning,” took on special meaning for me this past week. I was witness to the birth of a new movement in Alabama, a movement which has the potential to redefine the way faith communities confront social concerns in our state. The movement has a name: the Alabama Faith Council.
The Alabama Faith Council held its first annual public forum at Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham. Describing this forum as unique is an understatement.
For instance, the meeting was presided over by the Rev. Henry Parsley, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. In many ways Bishop Parsley was the catalyst for the formation of the AFC. After several faith groups banded together to call for tax reform in 2001, Parsley saw the possibilities for a different kind of voice speaking to faith concerns in our state.
However, the meeting over which Bishop Parsley presided was not composed entirely of Episcopalians, or even entirely of Christians. The AFC has as one of its core principles the desire to build community among all faiths in our state, beginning with the so-called “Abrahamic” faiths–Jews, Muslims and Christians. And these were all there and well represented. However, to everyone’s delight, the meeting also attracted participants from Alabama’s Hindu and Buddhist communities.
So Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others met for worship and prayer in a Baptist Church in Birmingham. Unique may not be a big enough word.
The content of the meeting was also unique. Obviously the AFC is trying to build an interfaith and ecumenical community that promotes dialogue and understanding. But there is hope we can do more than that. The theme of the meeting was “Inter-Faith, Inter-Action.” The action part of the meeting was designed to help people of faith confront social issues that dehumanize people and strip them of power and dignity.
At this first meeting there was concerted emphasis on social justice concerns, especially economic justice. Participants were able to choose between four breakout sessions, each of which dealt with a different challenge facing our state. Three of the four–immigration, constitutional reform and pre-kindergarten education–emphasized the plight of the poor in our state. The fourth breakout, and one of the best attended, focused on interfaith dialogue.
Having a group like the AFC step up to be heard is an important development for the wider faith community. For decades now one single voice has dominated the discussion about faith concerns. Conservative Christians groups like the old Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family have offered narrow faith platforms dealing with abortion and homosexuality while ignoring what Jesus called the “weightier” matters of justice.
The Alabama Faith Council will not be ignoring these weighty matters, and that is important to me. My involvement with the Alabama Poverty Project has convinced me that poverty in Alabama is our most serious challenge. Groups like the AFC and the Alabama Poverty Project complement each other very well in finding ways to confront the systemic social ills in our state.
The AFC will be a unique faith group in another way. Many of the conservative Christian groups in the past have been overtly and even blatantly partisan in their political activity. That will not be the case for the Alabama Faith Council. The AFC will not be endorsing candidates or political parties.
Instead, the Alabama Faith Council will seek to promote a vision of a diverse faith community working together around common cause issues. That became evident as we worshiped together. As we learned to sing the songs and pray the prayers of a diverse faith gathering, we found we were able to say a unified “amen,” around issues of life, peace, and hope.
Unique is not a big enough word.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala. He serves as a member of the executive committee of the Alabama Faith Council and is vice chair of the board of directors of the Alabama Poverty Project.