I stared back at the bronze statue in front of me. It was a face I did not recognize. “Who is that?” I asked my supervisor.
“This is Nannie Helen Burroughs! She was one of the most brilliant Baptist trailblazers who began a school for African American women in the early 1900s!” This kind of educational conversation on the richness of Baptist history was all too common during my summer with New Baptist Covenant.
I am a proud Baptist through and through—daughter of a Baptist minister, granddaughter of a Baptist preacher and niece of Baptist missionaries. Now in seminary, my identity as a Baptist woman has become even more important to me. But, growing up in my Baptist community did not make me aware of how large and diverse Baptists are. In getting to know the fullness of my Baptist family through the work of the New Baptist Covenant, I began to broaden my understanding of the breadth and depth of this community.
We traveled to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in June and later in August to the Progressive National Baptist Church’s Annual Session. Both were held in Dallas. Attending back-to-back Baptist conferences in the same city, held at the same hotel, made the particularity of these organizations’ traditions even more apparent. We are all so unique, but often isolated from one another. During one trip one of the white leaders doing church advocacy work remarked to me, “We thought our church was the first to embark on this kind of effort, but when we began to partner with an African American congregation we realized they had been doing this work all along. Their church has taught us new ways to do the important work of building God’s kingdom on earth.” It was incredible to hear stories of churches partnering together through service and from that, beginning to understand more of one another’s pains, dreams, heroes, and champions.
The shooting at Mother Emanuel AME occurred while we were in Dallas the first time. There are no words to describe the heaviness of that day … and yet in conversations with CBF members I saw how the effects of the tragedy were not the same among white churches as African American churches. While white church members felt the loss in solidarity with the community in Charleston, praying for a day where hatred would be no more, black church members lamented with the African American community and many traveled to church that Sunday fearing for their very lives. Our diverse histories affect our very sense of safety with one another. A friend texted me later that day, “This reconciliation matter is truly life and death.”
In my Divinity school courses we talk a lot about reconciliation. The more we talk about it the more it can seem like an empty hope, some lofty ideal of a forced friendship. But working with New Baptist Covenant this summer showed me new possibilities. The three words of New Baptist Covenant’s mission have stayed with me: action, reconciliation, and transformation. It seems reconciliation cannot be realized without action and transformation. And this is not something realized in one summer, one conference, one photo-op, or service project. My time spent with New Baptist Covenant deepened my understanding of what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I now understand that reconciliation is also not a quick process. It is a slow and sometimes painful healing process that takes time, and it begins with me. I now feel more equipped to continue in this process and to contribute to it as well as to benefit from it.
From my experiences as an intern for New Baptist Covenant, I left D.C. this summer asking different questions of my identity as a Baptist, and I left more aware of the privileges I hold in various contexts. I left wanting to take part in the New Baptist Covenant movement and to make a difference. I left feeling more courageous about asking the difficult questions and standing up for and with my brothers and sisters who are experiencing oppression—no matter who I might unsettle in the process. And, finally I departed D.C. praying that God would travel with us on the long journey toward justice.