Many months have passed since we met in Greenville, South Carolina. I promised to send you notes from our conversation, and in typical “Pryfogle time,” as my family calls it, I am finally getting around to the task. I am also sending this message to others who were not with us in Greenville but are interested in the conversation about Baptists Without Borders, a name proposed by Canadian Margie Bell at the 2004 Summit of Baptists on the Margins in Dayton, Ohio.
My apologies for the belatedness, especially to those who may have been waiting anxiously by their computers these past nine months for word of next steps, for a proposal or a plan, some kind of strategy for this movement. Let not your hearts be troubled. Your Internet connection is not to blame.
Here in Cary, North Carolina, we have closed the doors on Strategies R Us. Goals, objectives and tactics have been mothballed. Despite management’s initial objections, the union was able to secure generous severance packages for all workers: chocolate-covered parachutes, books of poetry, seed packets, ballroom dance lessons, and continuing de-education grants. Thus dispatched, we comfort each other with the words of the prophet: “The end of strategic planning is the beginning of wisdom.”
Now at my leisure, I join friends at the local coffee shop to trade gossip and listen in on the news of the day:
Dissident Baptists are organizing in Brazil, reports Devaka Premawardhana. A Cuban rather than a U.S. staff member is one of the Alliance of Baptist’s first emissaries to this nascent group.
Baptists in Australia and the U.S. are practicing like monastics. Leaders are discovering they need communities where they can let go of leading, be “out of role,” to use Baptist prophet and monk Mahan Siler’s phrase, and practice Sabbath. Letting go, they notice that Order emerges.
Others notice that mission moves in many directions. Canadian Baptist Lee McKenna duCharme is engaging people in conflict transformation in Sudan, the Philippines, and elsewhere. A Baptist congregation in Puerto Rico ministers in Venezuela. Sam Weeks of First Baptist Church of Ithaca, NY, is heading to Zambia for a year to work with AIDS orphans. Desmond Hoffmeister, a Baptist leader in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, is now the transitional executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains, and like a scout of old is helping people and churches cross steep divides.
Baptist Gary Gunderson is working with colleagues in Southern Africa to identify resources already present in Africa for the healing of Africa. The effort is called the African Religious Health Assets Program. In a similar way, Baptist doctors Laura Parajon and husband David are discovering the capacity of Nicaragua’s rural poor to develop healthy communities.
That’s the news with just one cup of coffee. But there’s more, so much more and so surprising it blows the binder off the strategic plan.
Youth at seven progressive Baptist churches in the U.S. South and Southeast are extending their community, and linking their congregations, beyond the one-week summer Baptist Youth Camp through letters, instant messaging, and cheap airfare. Their parents wonder how it is that kids in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Decatur, Nashville and Monroe want to spend so much time together.
The Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, District of Columbia Baptist Convention, and Progressive National Baptist Convention are working together in the rebuilding of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Perhaps they’ll dance and march soon in a New Orleans second line.
Baptist Rick Warren, pastor of the megachurch Saddleback and author of the best-selling “The Purpose-Driven Life,” tells the writer of a recent New Yorker article that he has been doing some soul-searching. He says, “God led me to Psalm 72, which is Solomon’s prayer for more influence. It sounds pretty selfish. Solomon is already the wisest and wealthiest man in the world. He’s the King of Israel at the apex of its glory. And in that psalm he says, ‘God, I want you to make me more powerful and influential.’ It looks selfish until he says, ‘So that the King may support the widow and orphan, care for the poor, defend the defenseless, speak up for the immigrant, the foreigner, be a friend to those in prison.’ Out of that psalm, God said to me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That changed my life. I had to repent. I said, I’m sorry, widows and orphans have not been on my radar. I live in Orange County. I live in the Saddleback Valley, which is all gated communities. There aren’t any homeless people around. They are thirteen miles away, in Santa Ana, not here. I started reading through Scripture. I said, How did I miss the two thousand verses on the poor in the Bible? So I said, I will use whatever affluence and influence that you give me to help those who are marginalized.”
Last month Warren hosted a conference for 1700 pastors to awaken evangelicals to the gospel imperative to minister to those with AIDS. Warren’s wife, Kay, delivered a keynote address. “The evangelical church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands over our eyes and mouths shut completely,” she said, according to an Associated Baptist Press report. “We’re not comfortable talking about sex in general and certainly not comfortable about talking about homosexuality — and you can’t talk about HIV without talking about both of those things.”
“Wow!” is what I say. Warmed and energized by this news and the coffee, I step outside the cafe into a cold December day, and there on the sidewalk next to a sign that says “Resist Empire - Sit A Spell” is a man telling stories about the Movement to anyone who will listen.
“The Movement is like a bridge that is purposefully and intricately built across a deep chasm. The people walk across the bridge with the noblest intentions until the wind knocks it apart and scatters the people below. They land on pieces floating in the current and clasp hands to pull each other to safety. The current and the clasping hands — that’s what the Movement is like.”
“What other story can we use to describe the Movement?” he asks the gathering crowd, hoping someone else will chime in. It’s not a rhetorical question, but no one replies.
So he continues. “Well, it’s like a bone dry day when the plants are dying and you’re worried about the landscape, then the rain comes and now you’re worried about flash flooding yet somehow amid the anxiety you spot a clod of grass carrying two worms float across the front yard and replant itself.”
We’re delighted but confused. So he says,
“The Movement is like a play where everyone forgets their lines but people in the wings remember, in fact everyone remembers for each other, and this leads to such laughter and lightness of being that the actors start floating above the stage.”
Finally, he adds,
“The Movement is like a crowd of people hurrying this way and that along the sidewalk, so intent on where they are going, then the traffic light stops them, and bending their heads, they notice their zippers are down. Looking up, their eyes catch each other, and they smile in recognition of the fact that they are all fools. That smile — that’s what the Movement is like.”
Returning to the office, which is a complete mess and over which plays the music of U2 — “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” — I somehow find the notes from the April 1 (yes, April Fools) Greenville meeting.
Our group included representatives from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Alliance of Baptists, Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, Roger Williams Fellowship, and Coalition for Baptist Principles. Many participants were American Baptist. Two participants were from Western Canada.
In our introductions we answered a question Mahan Siler sometimes asks groups: What time is it? We thought about the moment in our particular organizations, in the larger progressive Baptist movement, and in society in general. Common threads ran through our stories:
* A desire to act
* The ebb and flow of energy for associational connections
* The network model is emerging - or re-emerging: the Triennial Convention of Baptists in the U.S. pre-Civil War was a network model
* A desire to enhance informal networks
* A desire to be a safe place for people
* A yearning for alternative community
* A need to reduce isolation of minority voices
* A need/opportunity to provide shared services and support for ministers
Walls between the groups, walls blocking greater collaboration, were named:
* Isolation - it’s comfortable
* Fear of loss of mission
* Class myopia
* Ossified denominational structures
* Painful history
* Romanticism of movement
Someone said we need to deal with the fear of institutionalization; another said we need strategic focus.
The Alliance of Baptists was named as a potential organizer for moving this Baptists Without Borders conversation forward. It was our third summit. Some in the room were eager for a new structure, especially amid the fighting and the dying of the American Baptist Churches. It was suggested I draft a memo to the Alliance, telling them we sense that the Alliance is a gravitational center for progressive Baptists in North America and inquiring as to whether the Alliance feels called to provide leadership for this larger network of Baptists.
Alas, I didn’t write the memo. My heart didn’t leap at the task, and a number of other things claimed my attention as I completed the interim with AWAB. Truth is, I’m satisfied just to be in each other’s company telling Movement stories. That’s enough for me. (Besides, the Alliance was already in the room.)
To be sure, others will have the organizing passion; and I suspect the organizing question will surface here and there. That’s only natural, and good things can surely happen as people think intentionally about collaboration.
But my encouragement to all of you is to first say yes to the reality of a Movement that moves without our making it happen. You will find that this reality changes the question for those who would lead from “How do we fix things/organize things?” to “How do we participate in the good work already underway?”
A Movement text puts it this way:
Do not worry about your life … But pay attention to the Life of the Movement that is already here, all around you, and everything you need will be provided.
I look forward to being in your company again. Until then, may the Peace of Christ, presented as gift over and over amid all our Advent waiting and Ordinary striving, be with you.