By Bob Fox, Pastor, Faith Baptist Church, Georgetown*
White House Invitation: those were the three words on the subject line of the e-mail. I didn’t read it immediately, even though it was from Robert Parham (the director of the Baptist Center For Ethics) so I knew it was something more important than the usual Canadian pharmacy offers. But still, I expected it was some story about someone else so I put off looking at it.
What a surprise it was when I finally dug to the bottom of the e-mail pile and found that this was not someone else’s story, but the beginning of a chapter in my story. BCE and the D.C. Baptist Convention, I learned, had organized a meeting between senior officials of the Obama administration and a group of some sixty Baptists with concerns around social justice.
I had no idea why I would be included in this small group, but I immediately replied my acceptance. But the event was still shrouded in mystery. I did not know who else was going to be there and I really didn’t know what was going to happen.
On the morning of our meeting we gathered at the D.C. Baptist building for coffee and introductions. I was pleased by the diversity of the group. Black, white, male, female, younger, older, big city, small town—all were represented.
I suspected that one of my secret hopes—actually seeing the president—would remain unmet when the caravan of cars sped by away from the complex as we stood in line at security, and I saw the man with drawn weapon staring out the window of the fast disappearing car. I was right, the president was on the way to North Carolina. I was a bit surprised as we went through the gate and did not approach the building I recognized as the White House, but a much larger one that I had never realized was next door, the Eisenhower Office Building.
After going through yet another level of security, we were led to a large conference room. For the next three and a half hours, it was a parade of officials representing different offices within the administration. Each made a ten minute presentation followed by a five minute question and answer session. We learned about and discussed a wide range of issues including: human trafficking, immigration, predatory lending, disaster relief, education, mortgage relief and a host of others.
The meeting was hosted by the Office of Community Engagement and was I suspect similar to many other meetings this non-political arm of the administration hosts.
Did we change the world? No. Did we make a difference? Maybe. Was it worth the effort? Definitely.
I do have a few observations about the meeting that I would like to share:
Baptists are an impressive group. I had the opportunity to meet Baptists from around the country, and to a person, I was impressed by the way their faith commitment drove them to be at work in the world. Innovative and creative ministries guided by intelligent and spiritual folks. I was so encouraged by what Baptists are doing throughout the U.S.
The government is people. Too often we think of government as a faceless bureaucracy, but we sat across the table from real people, with real lives and real stresses who are trying to do some good in the public arena.
The goals of the government and the church are by no means the same, but they do intersect at points. We need to make sure we don’t conflate the vision of the church with the secular state or a particular political party, but there are places where we can work together without violating either our conscious or their mandate. These areas are particularly focused around issues of social justice.
The value of this will all be in if it starts a continuing engagement. The meeting was a great experience, but the real question is if it brings about some lasting conversation. In our short time, we left many things unsaid. Those who convened the meeting said it was intended to be a beginning to a conversation not a one-time event. Time and follow through will be the judge of that. I am hopeful that this will be the case.
*Bob Fox and Bob Coons, Pastor, Journey Fellowship, Owensboro attended the Goodwill Baptist meeting