Sunday, September 28, 2014

Distinctly Baptist, Distinctly Ecumenical

I had the opportunity this past July to sit down and talk with Southern Baptist minister Dean Anderson.  He is Pastor of Trenton Baptist Church in Trenton, KY, a small town in south, central Kentucky near the Tennessee border.  He is the author of Sacred Trust: Sermons on the Distinctive Beliefs of Baptists.  The book is the fruit of his doctoral workwhat does it mean to be Baptist?

Anderson is a long-time collaborator with Glenmary's Fr. Frank Ruff.  To him, it is not ironic to be so invested in reclaiming what is distinctively Baptist and also so open to ecumenism.  Those are not mutually exclusive goals to him.

As I do in most of my interviews with faith leaders, I asked the question which is the guiding mantra for our Commission on Ecumenism: 

How do we enhance understanding... reduce alienation... and foster reconciliation between Catholics, Evangelicals and other Christian denominations?
Healing Racial Divisions
Anderson started off by saying that the “biggest division is between the races.”  He talked extensively about reconciliation between black and white Baptists in Trenton and shared obvious joy at the changes that have taken place in his community.  Some of those divisions have only begun to be transcended.  As recently as 1999 (before his time as pastor), a black gentleman was discouraged from membership in the white church.  The man was a former soldier, a vocation strongly respected by the community, but that was not enough to melt the ice. 

Twelve years ago, Anderson took a chance and invited the local Baptist minister and choir to his church for preaching, singing and food afterwards.  It was a huge success.  “You can see the walls come down,” he shared.  This was "a small town where everybody knew each other," yet there were strong barriers along racial lines and few interactions in public.  After the churches started coming together, people would greet each other in town and at the grocery store.  “There was a whole different spirit in town.”  Anderson and his choir have also been invited to the black Baptist church in a likewise manner.  Since then, the two churches have kept the tradition going and repeat it at least once a quarter.  They also do ministry projects together, such as a food giveaway, and the pastors substitute for each other when they need a Sunday off. 
A Catholic Country Pastor Creates Ripples
“It’s been a blessing getting to know Fr. Frank Ruff,” Anderson said.  “I saw his passion for Jesus, leading people to Jesus. Most people [here] have no personal relationships with Catholics."  Anderson sees this as a crucial step in building ecumenical understanding.  "There are so many myths and oversimplifications."  His advice was clear:  “Get to know people like Fr. Frank, that’s what helps.” 
"A generation or two ago, there were strong anti-Catholic feelings in this part of Kentucky.  The younger generations are realizing the similarities," he said.
Anderson echoed what I have heard other leaders from different denominations say recently:  This is a time for grassroots, local relationship building more than lofty documents from the top-down.  There is no substitute for the direct, personal engagement of people of different faith traditions getting to know each other, seeing each other's passion for the faith and watching their life witness.  "Effective, long-lasting cooperation is [better than] a statement that passes from everybody’s awareness."
Fr. Frank participated in an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at Trenton Baptist Church.  "A Catholic priest gave a sermon on gratitude from our pulpit, and it was just wonderful," Anderson recounted.  “I would not hesitate to agree with or 'Amen' everything he said.  This is a giant step toward Christians loving each other."  That ecumenical Thanksgiving service began as a joint effort of the local Methodist, Presbyterian and white Baptist churches.  It has since grown to include Assembly of God, black Baptist and Catholic churches.

Anderson also would not hesitate to say that there are differences between Catholics and Southern Baptists and that the differences do matter.  However, "we have to also remember that we have so much in common, which is greater and more important than differences."  He describes a balance:  "We can run the risk of over-valuing or under-valuing our differences.  Those differences should not hinder Jesus' prayer or keep us from cooperating." 

Anderson cautioned that ecumenical and interfaith collaborations should be discerned on a case-by-case basis.  He cited Revelation 13:18"This calls for wisdom."  He is conscientious about the impression ministerial collaborations can make.  Working together does not necessitate agreement, but sometimes the disagreements are too strong for a partnership.

"That All May Be One" (John 17:21)

The best way to approach Jesus' prayer for unity, according to Anderson, is to start with the right attitude.  He outlines the following principles:

* "Have an openness to support and understand each other."  This sounds deceptively simple at first.  It does not assume agreement or even support, but it does require a true openness and willingness for that to happen.
* "Work toward the kind of spirit where Christians are non-competitive:  It is a gain for all faiths if a new family in town joins the Methodists, Baptists, any denomination, for example."

* "Pray by name for the other churches in town."  He gave an example of how he does this during his own services:  "I pray that the Father will bless them, use them and grow them to build His Kingdom."

* "Do joint ministry projects."  An example he gave was a collaborative effort of local churches which put a VHS tape copy of The Jesus Video Project in every mailbox in Todd County.  While he does not know what concrete gains may have come from this, the effort did spurn a story in the Hopkinsville newspaper about the partnership.

He concluded by saying: "Church history shows us that there are heroes of the faith in every tradition.  Worship in other traditions opens up appreciation.  Differences matter, but they shouldn’t keep us from working together today. [Much in the world is] hostile to the Christian faith—we are going to need to work together, and we are more effective and a stronger witness if we address it together."

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