ATLANTA – New Baptist Covenant II began Thursday night with a focus on unity following the touchstone passage from Luke 4 that was the basis for the first historic gathering in Atlanta in 2008.
Convened by former President Jimmy Carter, the second national gathering featured eight separate locations, all joined to the worship service in at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta through streaming video on the Internet and satellite uplinks.
Carter, originator of the New Baptist Covenant, opened the event by pronouncing the New Baptist Covenant’s purpose is to offer “a positive, non-exclusive program of sharing the gospel of Christ, with an emphasis on freedom, traditional Baptist values and practical ways to fulfill our Christian duties.”
The Baptists are coming together “without any constraints caused by race, politics, geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scripture,” he declared.
While Baptists are often known for their divisions and differences, Carter said, the one thing that unites all Baptists is the bottom-line profession that they are “saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” To replace that unity with any other issue would be “an abomination” that would divert the three-day gathering from its central truth, he said.
Thursday’s service featured messages from Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles; Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States; and Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America Inc.
“Thank you to our president, Pres. Jimmy Carter, for doing among Baptists in this day in time what it appears the Holy Spirit has not been able to do,” said Thurston in the introduction to his keynote sermon. “That is bring us together from every specter of Baptists across these United States.”
In the first address of the evening, Asian-American pastor Ken Fong warned that people seeking God expect to find the real thing when they come to our churches. “Baptists have to give those seekers the revolutionary gospel they are looking for,” said Fong, who leads a multi-ethnic American Baptist church in Los Angeles.
“They can’t wait for the revolution to start, and we’re just talking about it,” he said. “It’s easy for us to hear this proclamation in Luke 4 as metaphor. … But when you are desperate and have nothing, no one to turn to, those desperate people, back then and even more today, are longing to believe that that revolution of justice and hope … is more than proclamation. They want to experience it for themselves.”
The label “Baptist” should call to mind the message of justice and hope, said Fong, but the prevailing public image is that Baptists are intolerant, irrelevant and judgmental. As a result, he said, Baptists have “low self-esteem.” Many progressive Baptists have started introducing themselves with the disclaimer “I’m not that kind of Baptist,” Fong joked, “as if ‘I’m Not That Kind of Baptist’ is a new denomination.”
There are some Baptists who are highly respected by the public, he said, citing civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and Carter, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work through The Carter Center.
Addressing the former president, who brought opening remarks for the evening, Fong said, “They’re not sure they liked you as a president, but they love you as a Baptist.”
“There are people who think well of Baptists, but there are not that many they think well of,” the Los Angeles pastor added.
Despite a negative public perception of Baptists, Fong said, “We can turn this low self-esteem into a positive thing,” by acting the opposite of the public image.
In her address, Rosalynn Carter said the Luke 4 theme scripture emphasizes ministering to those held captive, and that includes many of the mentally ill. In American society, which doesn’t adequately take care of those with mental illness, patients are “often incarcerated only to get them off the streets,” she said.
There remain many public misunderstandings about mental illness, Carter said, despite “real advances” in its diagnosis, treatment and prevention during the 40 years she has been working on the issue.
In the United States there are still millions of mentally ill people “who, through no fault of their own, are in need,” she lamented, and too often they and their families are neglected by Christians. “I have talked to many, many families who have felt wounded, excluded, ignored by their own congregations,” she said.
Christians can use the example of Jesus’ ministry to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness, Carter said. According to biblical scholars, some of the demon-possessed people healed by Jesus were “very likely” suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and depression, she explained.
The stigma is “the single most damaging element” about mental illness, Carter said, even though, on average, one of every four adults will experience some form of it. The stigma remains strong despite the scientific study of the brain that has proven mental illness “is not the result of a weak will or poor parenting,” she added. “If you are suffering from a mental illness, there is no reason to feel ashamed.”
One of the new interests of scientists is exploring the positive effects of spirituality on those with mental illness, Carter said. Since there are “10 times as many pastors as mental-health workers” in the United States, churches are in a good position to minister to the mentally ill, she said.
“There are some very simple things that any church can do,” she said. In addition to offering spiritual help to the mentally ill, churches can care for their care-givers, particularly the family members. And all pastors should know about the mental-health resources in their communities.
Closing the evening session was the keynote sermon, delivered by Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, a 3 million-member African-American denomination based in Dallas. Thurston used the biblical example of Zacchaeus, the tax collector redeemed by Jesus, to urge Baptists to make a difference in the lives of the needy. Just as Zacchaeus gave away half of all he owned, we need to make similar sacrifices.
“… [H]elp us to say to Jesus ‘Count on me’ to reach the needs of the poor – for Medicare, for Social Security, for mental health, for physical health, for educational health and for spiritual health,” he said.
New Baptist Covenant II resumes 9 a.m. Friday with a worship service featuring an interview with Pres. Carter conducted by Bob Abernethy, executive editor and host of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. The service will also include messages from Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock, Ark., and DeeDee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich.
Friday night’s worship begins at 7 p.m. and includes messages from Carroll Baltimore, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; and Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.
The event will conclude with a day of service on Saturday in which each of the eight locations.
Streaming video of the services, a Twitter feed and photo galleries are available at www.newbaptistcovenant.org.
The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically, and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. Representatives of these Baptist organizations have reaffirmed traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality, as well as their obligations as Christians to fulfill the biblical mandate to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.