The week bumped up against the start of Lent. We began our road trip to Atlanta which sits a few hours north of us. The air felt crisp and expecting. Uneventful, we drove to the outskirts, parked the car, and tracked in by way of MARTA. The heart of the city. The air now carried a whip. We walked headlong in between goliath-sized buildings and into the sprawl of convention center land. The Georgia World Congress Center.
We were an odd threesome: a short widow, a tall preacher, and an average 30 something.
Carolyn’s feet don’t reach the floor when she sits down so she carries a wooden briefcase to prop them up. She had it with her on our trip. I never saw what was inside, but I imagined the notes and pins and reading materials had a certain wizardry about them.
Bob felt at home in the land of tall buildings since his scalp nearly scraped the tops of doors. He is 50-ish with a full head of hair and a faux leather notebook that gives that familiar appearance of studious note taking. He never opened it.
I followed this stilted man and shrunken woman, charmed to be part of a canterbury pilgrimage sharing our tales with each other on the way.
Oh, me? I’m a forgetful character in my five-eleven, thinning hair, and Scottish nose way. I carried a camera to make an attempt at capturing the throngs of people or document one of the celebrity encounters. Both would help justify taking a full day off from work. I wanted something tangible, visible, noticeable. Like Bob’s notebook, I left with no real photos.
In the guts of this giant beast of a building more than 15,000 Baptists roamed. This, I thought, would be a sight to behold. I had always taken Baptist exposures with trepidation and only in small doses. Overdue it, I said to myself, and you might become one of them. Yes. One of them -- one of those strange creatures that roam my childhood, going door-to-door and asking neighbors what they’d say to Jesus if death swallowed them up that very night -- one of those absurd dancing preachers that wouldn’t shut up until the Holy Ghost prompted some young schmuck to walk up front and be born again -- one of those double speakers who doled out friendship as a way of winning souls. One of those. But now, just before the penitent season, I faced a golden horde of Baptist faithful in a winding labyrinth that placed exit doors far out of my reach. I was stuck.
The simple history of Baptists is categorized by hatred - of them and by them. If you trace back to the Anabaptist movement, it infuriated papists, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike as John Leyden’s gang ripped through rituals and sacraments. If you don’t carry their history to that age, even as an anti-establishment movement against state sanctioned churches in England in the 1600s, the Baptist roots are divisive. In America, they have served as instigators of abolition and promoters of slavery, members of the suffragette movement and staunch supporters of women as a second class, pro-wine and pro-tea. As you may know, the Southern Baptists broke ranks with the Triennial Baptists in 1845 in a ardent decision to support slavery. Since then, the Southern Baptist Convention has grown to nearly 20 million. And, I should say that since those early years of wrong decisions about slavery, the SBC has contributed to a wide amount of good. For example, they promoted high levels of missionary work around the world and created one of the printing operations to circulate Bible study curriculum.
The noted controversy that leads to my recent excursion to Atlanta is the Fundamentalists takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. What were their fundamentals? What triggered a battle of control and qin-styled absolutism? Here are some reasons. First, they were appalled to hear that creation may not have happened in seven days and evolution carried some noteworthy possibilities. They didn’t appreciate the Bible being held in the hands of higher critics in an effort, as they saw it, to defame the truth. They hated those pious professors in Baptist seminaries that wouldn’t stop exploring the nature of God and questioning the practices of the church and qualifying a place for science. So Paige Patterson, W.A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers started working the system to ring out those watery liberals from their group. They did. They fired the professors who liked Socrates. They bound women in Pauline servitude to men. They birthed a fourth rung of the Triune God by placing the Bible as Inerrant Plus. And they told homosexuals to go f--k themselves and enjoy it now because hellfire draweth nigh. And, as a further isolationist tactic, they pulled out of the Baptist World Alliance because it leaned too liberal for their taste. Now the Southern Baptist Convention lives in a house all by themselves where they play their own games with their very own version of Jesus.
This separation grieved many people including Jimmy Carter. For more than a decade, he has encouraged dialogue and resolve, not in a push to make cookie cutter churches and congregants, but with the desire to find commonality and, centrally, love for each other. So, Carter instigated the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant that would invite all Baptists in North America to a large meeting in Atlanta, January 30 - February 1, 2008. The meeting would carry no set agenda aside from a general hope to prompt unity, dialogue, and love among Baptists. The discussions: obligations to peace and care for the world’s disenfranchised. The list of attenders would include more than 30 Baptist organizations. However, the effort paid to officially invite the Southern Baptists would fall on common rhetoric.
“I will not be part of any smokescreen left-wing liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” shouted SBC President Frank Page in a May 30, 2007 press release.
Cut back to inside our Atlanta labyrinth, the short widow, tall preacher, and average joe weaved in and out of sessions and exhibitions that intensely presented the Gospel of Jesus and all its layers. One layer that seemed to fade into a promising rainbow was the color of skin. In a mix that felt natural and not paraded, black, brown, and white worshipped and celebrated the unity and diversity that are hallmarks of the Christian faith from its earliest days.
Celebrities didn’t make appearances but they made appeals to love more than respect, unite more than critique, and serve Christ more than politics. On Thursday (the day of our experience), we heard author John Grisham share perspectives from his childhood in a narrow-minded Southern Baptist church as opposed to his church today that counters that history in important ways. We also heard pastor Julie Pennington-Russell about the need for honesty and something more than simply respect. There were many other notable sermons and presentations over the three day event. ...Bill Clinton talked about withholding judgement of others because we only know in part, quoting St. Paul. Tony Campolo and Marian Wright Eldeman advocated that poverty can be eliminated as we work out the love of Jesus. Al Gore pointed to our stewardship of the earth as a keen priority and responsibility. Jimmy Carter and Bill Shaw brought home the ideals of peace with justice. The list goes on.
By the time we left, Carolyn looked a few inches taller. “This is the way it used to be,” she said, “Like family. Everyone like family.” Bob took Carolyn’s wooden case and politely gestured a b-line to the door, sideways through the throngs of people. I think he realized the late hour and remembered he had to preach on Sunday, both at the same time. It had started to rain so we walked briskly to the MARTA stop rethinking what we had heard, seen, and now knew in a more profound way... that is, what it means to claim an identity with Baptists.
I still wondered what magic spells and stories filled Carolyn’s little wooden case. Perhaps it held the secrets to bring together the Lutheran Missouri Synod with Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists with African Methodists, and even the Orthodox with Catholics.