I was privileged this past week to participate in a truly historic event. Baptist groups from all across North America, even from around the world, gathered in Atlanta for a three-day show of Christian unity. The event, dubbed a New Baptist Covenant, brought together white Baptists, African-American Baptists, Hispanic Baptists, Asian Baptists and others. We all joined hands and lifted our voices praising God. And we prayed, prayed for a return to traditional Baptist principles.
It was an ironic moment for me. The last time I attended a Baptist convention was also in Atlanta–in 1995. That was the year Southern Baptists adopted a resolution apologizing for their past involvement with slavery and to publicly renounce racism. That was about the only thing at that convention that seemed to have any real significance for me.
After all, many southern Christians in the 1800s were staunch supporters of slavery. Even those not owning slaves supported slavery. They argued that slavery was a biblically mandated social structure. “Slaves, be obedient to your masters,” wrote the Apostle Paul. And for many in the South, that was the word of God.
And racism among southerners continued to exist long after the Civil War ended. In fact, the change in social status among African-Americans brought on by the end of slavery actually served to increase and inflame racist language and behavior.
So apologizing for slavery and repenting of racism was long overdue. The problem, however, is that for the most part, it didn’t mean anything. Convention resolutions are non-binding, and this one seems to have been more non-binding than usual. Except for some nominal partnerships with African-American Baptist groups, Sunday morning among Southern Baptists remains the most segregated hour in America.
But at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta, the segregation ended–with a shout!
It was really quite an amazing experience. We stood side by side, nearly 15,000 strong, learning to sing each other’s songs. We sang choruses from the contemporary church movement, we sang traditional Black Gospel, and we sang hymns from the hymn book. And though we struggled a bit with new rhythms and cadence, the significance was that we were there trying at all.
And we affirmed with loud voices and the clapping of hands those things that used to really matter to Baptists. When was the last time you were at a Christian gathering of any kind where a speaker received a standing ovation for affirming the separation of church and state?
Or when was the last time you were at a meeting where people wept during a sermon on the plight of poor children in America?
And when was the last time there was ever a gathering of Christian folk who were able to affirm that salvation comes by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, and at the same time affirm that God calls us through Jesus to champion social justice and non-violence?
Critics who accused former Presidents Carter and Clinton of wanting to use the meeting for political purposes on the eve of Super Tuesday were just wrong. There was nothing partisan about the meeting. In fact, there was not even much denominational partisanship. During our three days in Atlanta, the word Baptist was an adjective, not a noun.
Of course, the question in the air now is “What’s next?” And that remains to be determined. But this much is clear: whatever comes next, the “what was” of this meeting will be with me forever.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.