Former president Jimmy Carter said there have been many successes and he’s had no disappointments during the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant meeting, held Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Atlanta.
“We’ve been excited, pleased, and gratified at the participation,” he said, estimating that between 15,000 and 25,000 registered and unregistered persons have participated.
Carter acknowledged that Republican senator Lindsey Graham had called him to ask permission to withdraw from the program. Graham is a member of Sen. John McCain’s “inner circle,” Carter said, and McCain’s surprising surge in the presidential race had Graham busier than expected.
When asked how he would rank the unprecedented building of bridges among Baptist when compared to his many other accomplishments, Carter said it would be near the top, “but I don’t consider it to be my accomplishment.”
“Others have done much more work than I have,” he said.
“Where we go from here will be very important,” Carter said, noting that many people have stopped him in the corridor to say they don’t want the effort to be wasted. The same leadership team will assemble in March to talk about the next steps, he said, “to decide what we will do to accommodate hundreds of suggestions already pouring in.”
Program chair Jimmy Allen said “We have asked everyone to send their suggestions,” and that all suggestions will be read and considered.
“We’re not on a picnic,” he said, “but on a journey. We’re seeing the results of a whole lot of folks who have worked very hard.”
When asked about criticism of the meeting from Southern Baptist leaders, Carter said he thought earlier criticism was moderating. He said he had received “a generous letter” from SBC president Frank Page, and had spoken with him by telephone on Thursday. “The results of this will determine Southern Baptist leaders’ attitude toward us,” Carter said. As they decide on future projects, Carter said, leaders will be looking for projects in which the SBC might like to participate.
David Goatley, executive director of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, added a word of perspective. “Most Baptists in North America are not Southern Baptists,” he said. “For most of us, some of the tension of the last generation we’ve watched dispassionately or in grief.” But, he said, the majority of Baptists in North America have been looking for opportunities for networking and collaborating. Christians around the world are taking notice, he said: “I just want to note that is not the defining issue for us.”
In response to another question, Goatley mentioned groups like the North American Baptist Fellowship and the boards of the four National Baptist bodies. “This did not take place in a vacuum, but is part of a continuum,” he said.
The next steps have already begun, Goatley said, noting that more than 200 students from 16 institutions have been part of the meeting. “They are already doing idea generation,” he said. A group of 80 college students was also scheduled to join the session Friday night, then devote Saturday to service projects before closing out with a worship service at Mercer.
William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, referenced the biblical concept of the “fullness of time.”
“I would like to believe this is a result of the movement of the spirit of God in the religious community that has moved us to respond to what we believe is a central claim of the kingdom of God,” he said.
“We believe in the autonomy of the local congregation: bringing all these congregations together has to be the spirit of God.”