Thursday was a very good day – personally and for goodwill Baptists.

It began at 1:13 a.m. with a confusing awareness that the hotel fire alarm was screeching, beeping, bleeping – however one would describe that sound.

The alarm was a false one, one that continued for some 20 minutes and another 20 minutes ringing in my ears after the alarm was turned off.

It continued with an exasperating drive from the hotel to the Carter Center for a meeting about the future of the New Baptist Covenant.

The drive was supposed to take 14 minutes. It took 45 minutes over the winding, two-lane Briarcliff Road with any number of efforts to accelerate beyond the posted speed limit.

Not wanting to be late for the 9 a.m. meeting called by President Carter, I rushed on the hour into the executive office entrance through the tinted double doors and passed a cluster of men in dark suits to the reception desk. I asked the receptionist about the location of the Baptist meeting.

I heard an accented voice over my shoulder that I recognized, albeit as unexpected as the hotel fire alarm: “Hello, Robert.”

Turning to the familiar, out-of-place voice, I saw Mohammed Elsanousi and beside him Sayyid Syeed, good friends and leaders of the Islamic Society of North America.

They were there with two other ISNA leaders and Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA. Syeed and Medley were interviewees in our documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.”

My first thought was about how dynamic the NBC meeting would be with ISNA leaders in the room. Alas, that was not to be the case. They were at the Carter Center for another reason.

Had my drive from the hotel to the Carter Center taken the expected 14 minutes, I would have missed visiting with these Islamic collaborators for the common good.

I would have gone down the stairs into the meeting room and never known they, too, were there.

Was it coincidence or providence that my frustrating drive took so long?

In a world of science and suffering, one struggles often to see the hand of God. Science dictates that we define reality in a particular way that squeezes divine involvement out of the acceptable explanation for events. Human suffering causes us to question altogether divine involvement.

Together, science and suffering drive people of faith and no faith to doubt providence – or to think that divine engagement is the inexplicable exception.

My own wondering about coincidence or providence did not click until the middle of the next night – around 1:13 a.m. – long after the analytic side of my brain had slowed down and the intuitive side had accelerated.

The hand of God is a mysterious reality from the mundane to extraordinary. Whether one tilts toward coincidence or providence probably depends on one’s presupposition about the divine.

Statements about the providence of God are surely best seen in hindsight.

In hindsight, surely we will see the providence of God in Jimmy Carter’s tireless efforts to foster good will among Baptists in North America.

Only Carter can herd a large number of opinionated, turf-protecting, anxiety-ridden Baptists into a common direction for righteousness sake. He did it again last week.

Some 25 Baptists met for three hours to talk about the disappointments in the 2011 NBC gatherings. Problems were acknowledged – weak attendance at the main church meeting in Atlanta, bad timing near Thanksgiving, competing state convention meetings.

Never satisfied with a backward look, the group brainstormed about going forward together around the core commitment to Jesusagenda found in Luke 4:18-19.

Agreement emerged that we need to continue with the New Baptist Covenant, moving from meetings to a movement.

A major gathering will be planned for 2014. A major focus will be on prison reform – as well as racism. A major emphasis will be on involving a younger generation.

It was a good day to be a goodwill Baptist – certainly no coincidence.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Share This