Reacting to fundamentalism in Southern Baptist-influenced state conventions in Brazil, about 60 Brazilian Baptists have started an organization modeled after the Alliance of Baptists in the United States, paving the way for what one observer viewed as a “global network of progressive Baptists.”
The Alliance of Baptists in Brazil organized a week ago, electing officers and adopting a Statement of Principles including commitment to the individual’s right to interpret Scripture, autonomy of the local church, open inquiry in theological education and social justice, including rights of women and homosexuals.
While independent of Alliance of Baptists in the United States, the Brazilian Alliance considers itself a “fraternal partner” to the 200-church organization based in Washington, D.C., which had similar beginnings in defending principles viewed as under attack by fundamentalism then gaining ascendancy in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s.
Devaka Premawardhana, a 2005 Harvard Divinity School graduate whose father, Shanta, is a longtime Alliance pastor and leader who now works for the National Council of Churches, went to northern Brazil last year for a summer internship.
While there, he discovered a network of progressive Baptists with values similar to his own, who were facing pressure from state conventions over “controversial” issues like gay rights and women’s ordination. Premawardhana told their story to friends in the U.S.
Alliance leaders offered moral support, including a week-long visit to Brazil by Executive Director Stan Hastey in April to discuss a possible partnership.
At meetings weekend before last, Premawardhana said in an e-mail report: “We heard first-hand testimonial after testimonial about the restraints and restrictions exerted by the forces of fundamentalism in the reigning organizational structures of the Baptist church; about the marginalization and suppression experienced on account of courageous decisions to speak out openly and compassionately on issues such as women’s rights inside the church and in the larger society, such as the humanity of homosexuals, such as the biblical mandate for social justice, such as the importance of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.”
The Brazilian Alliance elected Wellington Santos, pastor of Primeira Irgreja Pinheiro in the city of Macaio, as president and Raimundo Caesar Barreto, pastor of Igreja Batista EsperanÃ§a in Salvador, as vice-president.
Barreto told EthicsDaily.com that while the grievances relate to Baptist state conventions in Brazil, they also point to “the strong influence that the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in its most fundamentalist fashion, still exerts upon many Baptist groups around the world.”
That includes the Brazilian Baptist Convention, he said, and most of its state conventions. “This shows the need we feel for groups like the Alliance to become better known outside the U.S.,” Barreto said.
Established by Southern Baptist missionaries in 1871, the Brazilian Baptist Convention today is the largest Baptist group in Latin America, with more than a million members and 6,000-plus churches.
The Brazilian convention was among international Baptist groups to criticize the Southern Baptist Convention for withdrawing from the Baptist World Alliance. Nilson Fanini, a longtime Brazilian Baptist leader, was president of the BWA from 1995 to 2000. The current convention president, Fausto Aguiar de Vasconcelos, was recently elected director of evangelism for the BWA, succeeding Australian Tony Cupit, who retired.
SBC leaders have indicated they are interested in working with like-minded Baptists in other countries apart from formal structures of the BWA. Some international Baptist groups, such as the European Baptist Federation, have worried that exporting the SBC controversy over issues like biblical inerrancy, coupled with funding, might divide Baptist groups outside the U.S.
Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, said his board of directors voted two weeks ago to formalize an open-ended partnership with what is now the Alliance of Baptists in Brazil.
“We are honored that such courageous and forward-looking Baptists in that great nation would consider us their partners in mission and ministry and look forward to the mutual benefits the new partnership will produce,” Hastey said.
The Alliance has a similar partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba.
Pastor Estela Hernandez, president of the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba, went to Brazil to observe the proceedings, a result of action taken by the U.S. Alliance of Baptists.
For most at the meeting, it was their first time ever to meet a non-Brazilian Baptist from a country other than the U.S., Premawardhana said. Her presence, along with his own (he is a Sri Lankan-American), not only strengthened the Brazilians’ internal network, he said, but also secured their place among an emerging “global network of progressive Baptists.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.