By Patricia Heys, Greg Warner and Lance Wallace
New Baptist Covenant Communications
ATLANTA ‒ Luke 4:18-19 continued to be the focus on the second day of the New Baptist Covenant II, and former President Jimmy Carter addressed the crowd in Atlanta and at satellite locations across the country with his assessment of the progress toward the goals of the New Baptist Covenant.
In his concluding remarks Friday night, Carter said some of the goals had been reached, such as unifying Baptists in the name of Christ. While some important issues have been addressed and partnerships formed during the past three years, Carter said that other issues, such as the growing rate of poverty and incarceration have been identified. He said there is still work to be done.
“We have a great opportunity in the future,” he said. “With Christ and with the strength of God almighty, we can make the same kind of progress on these issues that Martin Luther King and other heroes made in overcoming what I grew up in was a segregated nation and now that’s past history.”
Carter stopped short of offering next steps for the New Baptist Covenant, but let the evening end with a challenge to do more together.
The evening worship session also included messages from Carroll Baltimore, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of Children’s Defense Fund; and Tony Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.
Baltimore preached a sermon on the urgency of missions, calling Baptists to go and serve with the “favor of God.”
“We are here tonight because people are crying out for hope in a dark world,” he concluded. “If Baptists are afraid to go out into a dark world, we need to go out of business.”
While politicians in Washington are arguing about budget deficits, the more urgent issue for America is “the human-capital deficit ‒ the failure to invest in the children,” warned Edelman Friday night. She said how America addresses the deficit will determine if the country becomes “a blip or a beacon” in human history.
America has the highest poverty level it has had since 1959, with 46.2 million poor people, she said, including 20 million in extreme poverty.
“How can and will we close the spiraling divide between rich and poor?” she asked in a wide-ranging speech detailing myriad social ills affecting children and families. “We all profess to love children. It’s about action,” she said.
Poverty will not be confronted “in the absence of a sustained voice, a loud voice, from people of faith,” Edelman said.
And, giving the final featured message of the evening, Campolo talked about how the 21st century will require of Christians “a new, more radical commitment to follow Jesus.”
Campolo said sociologists have detected a shift among young Christians away from the theology of the Apostle Paul and toward the message of Jesus. He said these “red-letter Christians” are focusing on the issues that were most important to Jesus and are eager for the church to do the same.
“We've got to start giving young people hope for the future that comes out of Scripture,” Campolo said. Then he challenged the crowd, asking, “You think a bunch of old people who call themselves Baptists can't call a new generation to follow the teachings of Jesus?”
The morning worship session featured music from the Voices of Hope women’s choir from Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, messages from Wendell Griffen, a circuit judge and pastor in Arkansas, and DeeDee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. The service concluded with a conversation between Carter and Bob Abernethy, host of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Griffen and Coleman called for Baptists to confront the inequities and stigma imposed on prisoners in America, particularly people of color, and lamented that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Jesus’ promise in Luke 4 to bring freedom to those who are captive and oppressed has particular meaning for those incarcerated today, the two speakers said. While neither advocated cancelling the sentences of current prisoners, they agreed Christians must “free” prisoners from the inequities and discrimination of the criminal-justice system.
“Jesus went to the tomb and confronted the powers that held Lazarus and called on Lazarus to be released from confinement,” said Griffen. “If we are to be true followers of Jesus, we have to do the hard work of confronting the death forces that hold [prisoners and ex-offenders], because that’s what Jesus did.”
In the case of prisons, that means confronting the racism and the “mass-incarceration mindset” that perverts the criminal justice system and restoring prisoners to full citizenship once they are released, said Griffen.
Coleman, who operates a resource center for ex-offenders, called reform of the criminal justice system “the civil rights movement of our time” and said the prison system has become “the slave capital of America, using the mentally ill for cheap labor.”
“My charge to the church is to go behind the prison walls and see the faces,” she said. “Preach until we cannot preach it anymore. There is forgiveness at the cross. We can set the captive free by preaching the word of God.”
In the conversation between Carter and Abernethy, Carter said that Baptists in the New Baptist Covenant movement want to address some enormous challenges, such as racial reconciliation, immigration, social justice and economic disparity, but the enormity of the task is no reason to expect failure.
“We underestimate the power of what God ordains,” Carter said. “As long as we adhere to the teaching of God through the ministry of Jesus Christ, we have a power behind us in prayer that should not be underestimated.”
The lessons of the civil rights movement, Carter said, should remind the ambitious Baptists that even the most deeply rooted social ills can be overcome with time and the power of God. “The daunting task of civil rights took more than 100 years after the Civil War” to accomplish,” Carter said.
“There are some basic social things that have to change, and [the solutions] have to be based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, which are peace, human rights, justice, forgiveness, compassion and love for one another.”
Carter also gave a fast-moving summary of some key issues, addressing Abernethy’s questions and those submitted by Baptists around the world. Among others, Carter addressed campaign-finance reform, immigration policy and Palestinian statehood, as well as global warming, Islam, rebuilding Haiti and his own personal happiness. He also gave a status report on the growth of the three-year-old New Baptist Covenant movement.
“Unity among Baptists is increasing and we’ve broken down a number of barriers between different races. … We’ve made some progress in bringing Baptists together around a common goal.”
Friday’s activities also included special interest and breakout sessions. Each host site featured different programming for attendees to learn about and discuss a variety of ministries.
New Baptist Covenant II concludes Saturday with a day of service. Baptists in all eight locations will engage in service projects and activities in their local communities.
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.
By Patricia Heys, Greg Warner and Lance Wallace