I love almost everything about being a Baptist – the emphasis on scripture, local church autonomy, and the radical, “low-church” ecclesiology have always appealed to me, and being raised in the Deep South only serves to reinforce my strong sense of identity with the Baptist tradition. But what I love most about my denomination, The American Baptist Churches USA (ABC), is that it is what you might call a “big tent.” People from all over the political and theological spectrum gather together to share a common meal, even though they disagree on fundamental issues.
Something about that is beautiful – something about that is worth keeping. However, there is something about that idea that can also be alienating, especially if you identify as a progressive. Some of the ABC’s codified language, although it does not directly impact local congregations, makes me cringe. As someone who is emphatic and clear about his determination to craft welcoming, affirming, and inclusive communities for everyone, it is hard to belong to a denomination that describes itself as being a “biblical people,” who “submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.” The result is that the communities I call home appear like small islands of welcome awash in a sea of conservative, or worse, apathetic/neutral communities.
But this past month I had an experience that offered me something different – The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America’s 2013 summer conference, affectionately called “peace camp.” When I stepped off my transcontinental flight in Spokane, WA, I found people who were committed to working for justice in our world because of their faith in Jesus Christ. I found anti-imperialists, activists working for immigration reform, clergy using innovative solutions to prevent gun violence, laypeople striving to create cleaner energy solutions, and talented preachers willing to denounce the new Jim Crow. I found Baptists, and not just any kind of Baptists, but my Baptists. Here were clergy and laypeople living out the same kind of faith that I am trying to – in a word, I was home. And this experience changed how I felt about the work I was doing. My community was not some far-flung island anymore, but a part of an archipelago; there were other communities, quite a few of them, who were like mine.
Looking back over my summer, the realization that I was not alone was perhaps my most formative experience spiritually and vocationally. In rediscovering community, I dug deeper into my Baptist commitment and practice and left with a sense of renewal. My vocation as a Baptist seminarian seemed to matter more, and that made me think about the ways that community can empower and strengthen the work we are doing in the world. And so as these weeks come to a close and the school year looms closer, I invite you to consider small ways that you might become revitalized in your work by the realization that you are not alone. Maybe that means delving into your own faith community, seeking a new one out, or attending a conference like peace camp. Whatever it is, I hope that you take the time to pursue it, because I can tell you this: I am much happier being a part of an archipelago than a lone island.