Former President Jimmy Carter addressed a group of several hundred Baptists from at least seven different Baptist denominations on Aug. 7 in Norman. After giving his personal testimony about his own faith journey, including growing up in a predominantly black community in Archery, Ga., Carter told the assembled Baptists that "Christians can and must reach out to each other."
Carter's address was part of the penultimate session of the Midwest region's meeting of the New Baptist Covenant, a group Carter helped form with the help of former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Jimmy Allen and former President Bill Clinton. The group's goal, according to Carter, is to promote peace, social justice, equality and the gospel of Jesus Christ without doctrinal strife or denominational squabbling.
"The arguments are important to the people who are having them," Carter said, after enumerating a list that included homosexuality, women's ordination and abortion. "But the arguments are like a cancer metastasizing in the body of Christ. Rosalynn and I have been to more than 120 countries since I left the White House, and every country Christians are known for not being able to cooperate with each other."
SLATE OF SPEAKERS
The slate of speakers and preachers was atypically multiracial for a Baptist gathering, an intentional move on the part of the New Baptist Covenant. One of Carter's goals is to reunite black and white Baptists, groups that have been segregated since before the Civil War.
The event organizers and speakers also included representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and the four largest black Baptist denominations, including John Reed, pastor of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church.
Reed said he believed the New Baptist Covenant is making progress in their goals, especially racial reconciliation in the Baptist denominations.
"It's been a tremendous gathering," Reed said. "There has been an emphasis on serving in a united way and an open discussion about racism in the church."
Reed was one of several black pastors who spoke, but the racial mix also included a Palestinian pastor and Latino pastors. Hanna Massad is the former pastor of Gaza Baptist Church in the Gaza Strip. The area is one of particular concern to Carter; he is traveling there later this month to "let the world know what is happening there."
Massad's testimony was focused on informing Baptists that they have Christian brothers and sisters among the Palestinians.
"Even if you disagree with Hamas, we still need to speak about the injustices suffered by those in Gaza," Massad said. "It's hard to imagine that in the 21st century people don't understand Gaza is a prison. I'd like a stage where I could speak to Christian Zionists to show them what is happening and say to them, 'You can love Israel and still speak against injustice. We can have love in our hearts for Israel and Palestine."
The network of relationships in the New Baptist Covenant locally is the work of Bruce Prescott, the director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Prescott said he wanted a politically, theologically and racially diverse meeting.
First Lady Kim Henry joined a panel on racism, and Gov. Brad Henry introduced President Carter after giving his personal testimony, including the importance of his faith in helping his family through the death of a daughter.
The governor and first lady became involved with the New Baptist Covenant after a trip to Ghana two years ago with Charles "T" Thomas, coordinator of Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, and Mitch Randall, pastor of NorthHaven Church. The Henrys visited the same slave castle President Obama toured recently.
Kim Henry said the slave castle had a profound effect on her and contributed to her decision to participate in a discussion about race.
"It was almost like walking into a time machine," she said. "You feel and smell the anguish and the fear. It was surreal to walk into a place where so much evil was done for profit. I remember thinking the castle mimicked humanity: It's so beautiful from the outside and the view of the ocean is beautiful, but inside it hides something sinister."
One theme addressed was racism between minority groups. President Carter, asked what the role of white Baptists would be in helping non-Anglo Baptists solve their racial divides, said the New Baptist Covenant ties its entire effort to Jesus' call to preach to the poor, heal the brokenhearted and free the captives. "Greg Horton