A man who traces his ancestry to the slave trade in Ghana will be elected this week in that West African nation as the general secretary of the largest umbrella organization for worldwide Baptists with some 110 million members in 130 nations.
Neville Callam will become the first non-white leader in the history of the 102-year-old Baptist World Alliance.
Callam has been a pastor in the Jamaica Baptist Union since 1975. His BWA involvement began in 1985. From 2000 to 2005, he was one of the body’s vice presidents.
As a featured speaker at the BWA’s centenary congress in Birmingham, England, in 2005, Callam’s topic was social justice.
“We are still a world stained by human selfishness, and the robes we wear are soiled by the clinging dirt of our inhumanity to each other,” he said.
“Solemn corporate worship involving sacrificial offerings and excellence in music ministry is good, and we must value it. Yet, it is no substitute for justice-making commitment by the whole people of God,” he said.
Callam sits on the World Council of Church’s Faith and Order Commission. He has also chaired the board of Jamaica Public Television.
Both Callam and retiring general secretary Denton Lotz have degrees from Harvard Divinity School.
A citizen of the United States, Lotz became general secretary in 1988 after joining the BWA staff in 1980 and serving as both the director of evangelism and education and director of youth. He was educated in both American and European universities. He served as both a missionary with the American Baptist Churches and taught as a professor of missions for over a decade at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland, now located in Prague, Czech Republic.
Lotz guided the BWA through the rocky period when the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the BWA under spurious charges.
The BWA’s general council meets annually in different regions around the world. Few meetings have been held on the African continent and none in West Africa. The general council met in Kenya in 1982, Zimbabwe in 1993 and South Africa in 1998.
The host convention, the Ghana Baptist Convention, was founded in 1947, replacing the Yorbua Baptist Association, which came into existence in 1935. The GBC has an estimated 1,000 churches with 75,000 baptized members.
In addition to the transition in BWA leadership, general council delegates will visit one of Ghana’s slave castles and hold a memorial and reconciliation service.
That event coincides with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in the British colonies.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African area where Europeans purchased slaves.
An estimated 6.3 million West Africans were sold into slavery and shipped to the Americas with the largest number between 1701 and 1810, according to Ghanaweb.com. Some 5,000 slaves were shipped annually from the territory that became Ghana. Of the 45 European fortresses built along the coasts of West Africa, 32 were in Ghana.
The British Parliament abolished the slavery trade in March 1807, although trade in human beings continued for many more several decades.
Among the most forceful Christian advocates for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain was William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, who made his first speech against slavery in 1789.
William Knibb, a missionary with the British Baptist Missionary Society (now BMS World Mission), was also an early opponent of slavery.
The slavery issue split Baptists in the United States in 1845. Pro-slavery advocates formed the Southern Baptist Convention. Abolitionists formed the Northern Baptist Convention, now American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
Ghana, a nation larger than the state of Oregon, was also the first black African colony to receive its independence, according the BBC’s country profile page.
Formerly named the Gold Coast, Ghana became independent in 1957.
A predominantly Christian nation, the CIA Web site’s country profile estimates that 68.8 percent of Ghanaians are Christian (Pentecostal/Charismatic-24.1 percent; Protestant-18.6 percent; Catholic-15.1 percent; and other-11 percent). Muslims account for 15.9 percent. Indigenous or traditional religious are 8.5 percent.
Ghana is recognized for its freedom of the press.
Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics and serves on the BWA’s Freedom and Justice Commission. He is attending the annual gathering and general council meeting in Accra.