BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CBF) — More than 1,000 people gathered in Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 31 for the first regional gathering of the New Baptist Covenant. The event, which was held at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, occurred on the one year anniversary of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, which drew more than 15,000 Baptists in Atlanta.
The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. The organizations have united around the shared vision found in Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus declared his intention to bring good news to the poor, release for the captive and sight for the blind.
Former President Jimmy Carter delivered the morning keynote address.
“This morning I come representing Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.,” Carter said. “I speak to you as a deacon, Sunday School teacher and husband of the most active deacon.
“There is no way for us to avoid Jesus’ emphasis on the poor, the blind, the oppressed. And as Baptists it is hard to ignore the emphasis on religious liberty. [May] our prayers collectively and individually be guided by Jesus Christ. [May] we have no division among Baptists.”
In the afternoon worship session, participants heard from Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Wayne Snodgrass, pastor of Progressive Union Baptist Church of Huntsville, Ala.
“The real challenge is ‘What do we do after the benediction?'” Snodgrass said. “Where do we go from here?”
In her impassioned plea to the audience to seize the moment of administration change to bring about improvements in the lives of impoverished children, Edelman called for universal health care for children, enhancements to education, increased involvement in the lives of children by responsible adults and churches reaching beyond their doors into their own communities to come alongside children who need love.
“I know if Dr. King were here today he would say ‘let’s start a movement to liberate the poor children’,” Edelman said. “This is a biblical moment of transformation. That we will stand here and answer the call.”
Arthur Price, pastor of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, and Gary Furr, pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, served as co-chairs of the event’s steering committee, which also included pastors and lay leaders from across Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle.
“Can you imagine that 45 years ago, people used to gather here to strategize on how to put an end to racial inequality?” Price said during the morning worship at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African American girls were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.
“Imagine that 45 years ago this window to my left where Jesus is knocking on the door, the face of Christ was blown out. I believe that God was telling us back then, as he is telling us now, that we are more united than we are divided.”
Furr echoed the call to unity and spoke of the growing friendship between his congregation and Price’s.
“The New Baptist Covenant begins with common worship, which will grow into fellowship, which will grow into friendship, which will grow into possibilities we have not yet dreamed,” said Furr. “This is a new day. We want to be a part of people joining hands.”
The event also included 14 breakout sessions, which focused on the Luke 4 mandate of good news for the poor. Music and theme interpretations were provided by a mass choir which included the Birmingham Chamber Chorus and the local church choir members, the Magic City Boys and Girls Choir, Troy University Dance Ensemble and recording artist Kate Campbell.
The New Baptist Covenant Regional Gathering served to bring together Baptist churches across racial lines in order to celebrate unity in Christ. Organizers hope the event will build relationships between congregations and clergy among various Baptist denominations and create possibilities for shared work in the future.
When asked how Baptists could continue to build on the momentum of the New Baptist Covenant, Carter said, “Pray about it. Each one of us has untapped ideas and innovative thoughts to channel into this goal. Reach out to our neighbors, put away the divisions that separate us and exemplify what Christ taught. It depends on how high on our list of priorities we make this goal.”
More information on the regional meeting can be found at www.se.newbaptistcovenant.org.
The Birmingham event is the first of five regional gathering that will be held this year. Upcoming events include: April 2-4 in Liberty, Mo.; April 24-25 in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Aug. 6-7 in Norman, Okla.; Sept. 10-12 in Chicago, Ill.