Baptists from more than 80 countries are meeting this week in Durban, South Africa, for the 21st Baptist World Congress.
Held every five years by the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), the Congress brings Baptists together for worship, fellowship, missions, advocacy and dialogue.
The theme for this year’s Congress, the first held in Africa, is “Jesus Christ, The Door.”
“I think it’s great that the Congress is here in Africa,” outgoing BWA President John Upton told EthicsDaily.com. “I hope our African family will feel supported.”
Upton, who is also executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, was elected in 2010 at the last Congress in Hawaii and will finish his five-year presidential term in Durban.
In his final presidential report to the BWA’s General Council, Upton shared his “appreciation … for the honor of serving as president of the BWA these past five years.”
“I find myself thinking through warm thoughts of worship, travels, visits, conversations, meetings, planning sessions, meeting with religious and government officials, experiences and a thousand other things,” he offered in his reflection.
“The gift that I treasure most in the Baptist World Alliance has been the gift of relationships, both within Baptist life around the world and within the broader Christian community,” he said. “Being the body of Christ in the world and unifying that body have become important themes in my own mind and ministry. My convictions are different now and more rooted in diverse relationships.”
Talking with EthicsDaily.com on the eve of the Congress, Upton reflected more on his tenure as BWA president.
He visited almost 50 countries during his presidency. Although he said “everyone was so unique” and they are “hard to compare,” a few trips that especially stood out for him was a recent visit to Great Britain as well as visits to Nagaland (in India) and Nicaragua.
“One of the biggest takeaways is being in an atmosphere, an environment where people are under such harsh circumstances – be it poverty, be it oppression – and having them singing a song of joy.”
He recounted visiting a refugee camp in Thailand, watching as victims of land mines were helped onto the stage as they were missing limbs or were blind and then listening to them sing.
Upton said his biggest surprise came as he saw the “collective power” of the global Baptist family that “opens doors for conversations.”
He met with nine presidents in their offices, two popes and many other religious and political leaders.
During a recent visit to Croatia, Baptists unrecognized by the government managed to schedule a visit with their mayor because Upton as BWA president was coming.
The group had tried unsuccessfully for seven years to get a permit. With Upton there showing that the group was part of a larger, global movement, the mayor stamped the permit during the meeting.
“We Baptists are so congregational-based, I think we sometimes forget the power of collectiveness,” he said.
He hopes Baptists will remember “the value of being community together” and not get too localized.
He also hopes that the Congress this week centers on “the unity of the Body of Christ called ‘Baptists.'”
Paul Msiza of South Africa will be installed as the next BWA president. He previously served as president of the All Africa Baptist Fellowship (one of the six regional BWA fellowships), general secretary of the Baptist Convention of South Africa, one of the BWA vice presidents and on several BWA committees.
Msiza, who was featured in EthicsDaily.com’s Profiles in Goodwill series, will be the second BWA president from Africa.
William Tolbert of Liberia, served as BWA president from 1965-70. Tolbert later served as president of his nation from 1971 until his assassination in 1980.
The six plenary speakers for the Congress represent the global diversity of the Baptist family: Peter Chin of South Korea, Dimitrina Oprenova of Bulgaria (also featured in the Profiles in Goodwill series), Anthony Carroll of Bahamas, Donald Ndichafah of Cameroon, Luiz Silvado of Brazil and Joel Gregory of the United States, who spoke with EthicsDaily.com via Skype in advance of the Congress.
Additionally, dozens of other Baptists will speak in breakout sessions.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.