By Aaron Weaver and Emily Holladay

DECATUR, Ga. — The New Baptist Covenant Summit concluded its meeting Friday with panel discussions on advocacy and prison reform, a message from Dee Dee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich., and presentations of Covenant of Action plans at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Leaders gathered from Dallas, Birmingham, Ala., St. Louis, Atlanta and the Northwest United States region as part of the New Baptist Covenant, a movement started by President Jimmy Carter in 2007, to break down barriers of race, theology and geography among Baptists so that Jesus’ mandate in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke to proclaim good news to the poor and set the oppressed free can be realized.

The New Baptist Covenant Summit kicked-off Thursday with a time for participants to share memories of the inaugural New Baptist Covenant gathering in January 2008, which brought together more than 15,000 people representing over 30 Baptist organizations to Atlanta for a time of worship, discussion and celebration, as well as a keynote message from the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., noted civil rights leader and pastor emeritus of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

Friday morning’s events began with a panel discussion on advocacy led by Stephen Reeves, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy; Jacque Culpepper, associate professor of education at Mercer University’s Tift College of Education; Danielle Ayres, minister of justice at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas; and Linda Streit, dean of Mercer University’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing.

“Advocacy is putting your neighbor’s needs ahead of your own needs, which comes in stark contrast to lobbying with your own self-interest,” Reeves said. “For churches, the first thing to think about is your community. It starts by looking outward and becoming a voice for the folks you see in your community.”

Ayres added, “Preaching good news to the poor means they need to be freed from the bad news of poverty and oppression.”

After the panel, Dee Dee Coleman discussed how to bring healing to communities and focused on how churches can advocate for the needs of incarcerated individuals.

“What we found out about the local church is that we have what’s called ‘religious capital’ that gives us validity in the community,” Coleman said. “If all of the churches in the area would come together on an issue that affects us, we could make a big difference.

“The church must be sensitive to the plight of incarceration and what that means. We do very well when it comes to visiting the sick, but when it comes to visiting those who are incarcerated, we have to fight to get people to go behind the bars.”

David Key, Baptist studies director at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, also spoke about plans to launch a massive open online course (MOOC) geared toward students at Baptist theological institutions titled “The ART (Action, Reconciliation, Transformation) of Social Justice: Rauschenbusch, King and Carter.

This master’s level course would offer an in-depth examination of Jesus’ mandate in the fourth chapter of Luke and feature a curriculum focused on the writings and contributions of five Baptists: Baptist theologian and pastor Walter Rauschenbusch who is regarded as the father of the social gospel movement; civil rights pioneers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King; and President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

The event ended on Friday with a service of celebration and commissioning at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Those gathered watched a video message from President Jimmy Carter who offered a word of encouragement for the group and expressed his excitement for their future work together. 

“The very work that has brought you to the Carter Center today has called me to Nepal as we both seek to be instruments of peace and reconciliation in the world. I hope you will pray for me and the people of Nepal in this exciting time in their democracy even as I am praying for you and the important work you are doing here. While I cannot be with you today in Atlanta, know that I am with you in spirit. My thoughts and prayers are with you. I am grateful and encouraged that you have chosen to participate in the New Baptist Covenant Summit – that you are here committing yourself to the goals of action, reconciliation and transformation.

“The New Baptist Covenant movement is dear to my heart. For too long, racial, theological and geographic barriers have separated our Baptist family. Your work here can change that and help to usher in a new age of shared ministries and fellowship. You came here to make covenants with God and each other, lending our stories to God’s eternal narrative for hope and healing of all creation.”

The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. addressed the group with a meditation on the persistent evil of racism in American society and the need for people of faith to work together and fight injustice.

“Not enough of us are raising our voices with moral courage for love and justice. Love without justice is weak sentimentality. Justice without love is naked brutality. To pretend or believe that the light came and racism ended with the election of President Obama is like saying cancer ended with the development of chemotherapy,” said Moss. “We must forever proclaim that God is love. And love is of God.”

Following the meditation, participants from Birmingham, Atlanta and Dallas presented their cooperative service projects called Covenants of Action.

Dallas participants from Wilshire Baptist Church and Friendship-West Baptist Church presented the following Covenant of Action to address the problem of predatory lending in their community:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon us! We covenant before God and with each other to, ‘preach good news to the poor,’ in Dallas, Texas, by deepening the bonds of fellowship between Friendship-West Baptist Church and Wilshire Baptist Church and by acting jointly to confront predatory lending practices that disproportionately harm the vulnerable. We will do so by educating our churches, advocating for more just laws, and creating alternative credit sources that promote the welfare of the lenders and borrowers alike.”

Dallas participants in the summit included: Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III, senior pastor, Friendship-West Baptist Church; Dr. George Mason, senior pastor, Wilshire Baptist Church;

Rev. Danielle Ayres, minister of justice, Friendship-West Baptist Church; and Rev. Heather Mustain, minister of missions, Wilshire Baptist Church.

Participants from Birmingham, Ala., created a covenant to address the problem of hunger.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon us! We covenant before God and with each other to, ‘preach good news to the poor’ in Birmingham, Alabama, by partnering with the Weekend Backpack Program to provide nutritious food to school children. These children are provided free breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, but are not guaranteed food over the weekend. Furthermore, we covenant to address the systemic issues related to food justice through an ongoing educational dialogue designed to explore our participation in finding solutions to end hunger in our community.”

Birmingham participants presenting this Covenant of Action included: Dr. Christopher Hamlin, pastor, Tabernacle Baptist Church; Rev. Terri Byrd, coordinator, Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; and Rev. Allan Burton, co-director, Hope Manifest.

Atlanta participants announced a Covenant of Action focused on literacy among youth.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon us! We covenant before God and with each other to, ‘set at liberty those who are oppressed,’ in Atlanta, Georgia, by strengthening the support system for young people. Our covenant is to work with youth in 8th grade and younger to dramatically increase their literacy skills through adopting reading initiatives, increasing the number of public computer labs in churches, and by sponsoring workshops and training for parents on 21st century parenting.”

These Atlanta participants included: Rev. Katrina Moore, director of next generation ministries and children’s pastor, Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church; Rev. Trey Lyon, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving alongside Park Avenue Baptist Church; Rev. Michael Wortham, assistant pastor for youth, young adult and college ministries, Ebenezer Baptist Church; and Rev. James Alexander, young leaders representative, New Baptist Covenant.

Participants from St. Louis and the U.S. Northwest region plan to release their covenant of action in the coming weeks. The two-day summit ended with a commissioning litany and communion.

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