The shocking London bombing and disturbing aftershocks of threatened violence may cause many global Baptists to reconsider their attendance at the Centenary Congress of the Baptist World Alliance later this month in Birmingham, England. After all, prudence is a hinge Christian virtue.
However, most Baptists are certain to keep their plans to learn from and fellowship with other Baptists from around the world, joining the war against terrorism with the heart of courage to show that peace will win.
I lament now more than ever that I will be unable to join these good souls. This Congress may well be remembered in the future as the gathering of the brave Baptists after the British bombing at the beginning of the 21st century war on terrorism and fundamentalism. These Baptists may forge a stronger and more united Baptist core that will radiate the best of the Baptist tradition around the world.
With much regret, we canceled our family plans in March to attend the Congress due to the uncertainty of my acute leukemia. We had begun planning our trip almost a year ago. I had wanted my family to meet the authentic Baptists who live with christo-centric courage and conviction every day.
Attendance at the 2004 BWA General Council meeting in Seoul and the European Baptist Federation gathering in Beirut gave me a renewed admiration for global Baptists. I listened with high regard to Baptists who live as a minority more often than not in hostile or indifferent communities. I learned about how they use their meager “loaves and fishes” to meet enormous needs.
A trip in February 2005 to Sri Lanka and India gave me a firsthand look at the BWA’s splendid relief and development network that works through indigenous leaders.
So, I will sorely miss the experience of introducing my family to and visiting with my growing list of friends made on these trips. I will also miss joining with these spirited folk and giving witness to Baptist courage.
If I could attend, I would have a hard time prioritizing how to invest my time. Of course, Jimmy Carter’s Sunday morning Bible study will be one of most talked about events. Even then, I think the real muscle in the gathering lies is elsewhere.
Here’s my recommendation for the top five must do priorities:
1. Attend one of two pre-congress events.
One conference option, “Living Water,” has a stellar lineup, including Les Fussell, director of Australia’s Baptist aid program, Alistair Brown, head of BMS World Mission and David Coffey, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Leena Lavanya, the closest version we Baptists have to a Mother Teresa, may be the most impressive figure on the program. Go out of your way to meet her and learn about her ministries in India where U.S. churches could wisely invest their mission money.
The other conference option is “Freedom in Christ—Freedom for the World.” The conference focuses on freedom, peace and justice issues. For more information, email Graham Sparkes (email@example.com).
2. Participate in the afternoon focus groups.
Be sure to attend Lauran Bethel’s session on human trafficking and prostitution. Learn more about sex slavery and become a political advocate for international reform.
Fred George, a British pastor from Sri Lanka, leads the focus group on religious persecution and freedom, another timely topic.
Graham Sparkes, head of the faith and unity department for British Baptists, and Nigel Varnell, leader of Christian Aid, will direct the discussion on how Christians should address poverty and justice issues that the Make Poverty History campaign raises.
3. Spend time in the display hall, specifically at three displays:
First is the Lebanese Baptist Society headed by Nabil Costa. Try to arrange an opportunity to visit with him. Talk with him about how Baptist work and witness as a minority faith group in a predominantly Muslim country committed to religious tolerance.
Second, visit the Micah Challenge booth. British and Australian Baptists are at the forefront of this evangelical effort to cut global poverty in half by 2015. We Americans have much to learn from the Brits and Aussies about the biblical witness’ call for social justice and the church’s role in influencing public policy. They combine a conservative theology with social justice, instead of what we do—holding a conservative theology with a shallow, personal piety.
Third, check out the European Baptist Federation display. Try to meet General Secretary Tony Peck. Talk with Keith Jones about the International Baptist Theological Seminary.
Arrange to meet the energetic Daniel Trusciewitz , the Polish Baptist director of EBF’s indigenous missionary project.
4. Visit the special BWA pavilion outside the main entrance, where you’ll find information about and get to meet the staffs of the BWA, Baptist Union of Great Britain and BMS World Mission, the oldest Baptist missions sending organization.
Pick up information about Baptist World Aid and meet its director Paul Montacute. If you are an American, take home the name tag ribbons that say “Baptist World Aid, a Ministry of BWA” as a reminder to ask your convention or fellowship leaders why BWAid isn’t the preferred channel for hunger relief and development work.
5. Meet global Baptists in line and schedule meals with them.
I’ve observed a tendency, dare I say a pattern, at global Baptist gatherings. Baptists from the South huddle with Baptists from the South. If you only spend time with those who have the same accent and experience, you will be sacrificing the gift of new friendships and missing an opportunity for growth.
See if you can meet Solomon Ishola (Nigeria), Parush Parushev (Bulgaria), Anna Maffei (Italy), Henry Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Bela Szilagyi (Hungary).
Baptists gathering next week in Birmingham need the prayers and deserve the admiration of their fellow Baptists. They are the heirs and the parents of the best of the Baptist tradition.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.