By Marv Knox
ATLANTA — Fifteen thousand participants in the New Baptist Covenant convocation arrived in Atlanta Jan. 30 seeking unity in Christ and departed Feb. 1 wondering where their quest will lead.
In the meantime, they demonstrated racial, theological and geographic harmony as they prayed, sang, listened to sermons and attended workshops focusing on ministry to the people Jesus called “the least of these” in society.
The unprecedented event brought together African-American, Anglo, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists. They represented 30 Baptist conventions and organizations, all affiliated with the North American Baptist Fellowship, the regional affiliate of the Baptist World Alliance. They also heard from two former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and a former vice president, Al Gore-all Baptists.
Participants scaled a 163-year-old wall that has divided the denomination since U.S. Baptists parted company over slavery more than a decade before the Civil War.
As women and men of numerous races sat side-by-side through sermons and hugged and laughed in hallways, they embodied a dream-come-true for Baptists who dreamed of racial reconciliation in their denomination.
“This is the most momentous event of my religious life,” declared an emotional Carter, a son of the South and a lifelong Baptist.
“For the first time in more than 160 years, we are convening a major gathering of Baptists throughout an entire continent, without any threat to our unity caused by differences of our race or politics or geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scripture,” said Carter, who co-chaired the gathering with Mercer University President Bill Underwood.
Carter’s euphoria echoed the aspiration of another Baptist from Georgia, and the convocation fulfilled the prophecy of Martin Luther King Jr., Underwood told the crowd.
“Forty-five years ago, a native son of Atlanta, a Baptist pastor, shared with all of us his dream: One day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” Underwood said to sustained applause.
“Today, here on those red hills of Georgia, Baptists have come together to take a step in the long and difficult journey toward achieving Dr. King’s great dream. After generations of putting up walls between us-separation, division by geography, by theology, but most of all division by race-a new day is dawning. … Today, we all sit down together at the table of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood.”
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