Beliefnet News

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

Atlanta – Since his days in the White House, former President Jimmy Carter has served as an elder statesman on global issues and garnered the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work along the way.
Now he’s using his religious credentials — particularly his 65-year history of teaching Sunday school — to bring peace to another warring party: Baptists.
He has spearheaded the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, an unprecedented three-day gathering of more than 10,000 Baptists that began Wednesday (Jan. 30).
“It’s hard to find an example of a Baptist layperson who has done more to put feet to his faith than President Carter,” said Mercer University President Bill Underwood, who started planning the Atlanta gathering with Carter two years ago.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who could have brought this diverse array of Baptists together … other than President Carter because he is so respected for the work that he has done.”
The former president continues to teach Sunday school about 35 or 40 times a year at his Maranatha Baptist Church, a small congregation near his home in Plains, Ga., which supports the mission programs of both the Southern Baptist Convention and the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“Whenever a Sunday comes and I’m in Plains, then I teach,” he said in an interview.
On Wednesday, in an emotional moment, Carter said the celebration was “the most momentous event” in his religious life and urged a renewed focus on the key aspects of Baptist faith, including salvation and unity.
“Unfortunately, the arguments and even the animosities that exist among Christians are like a cancer that is metastasizing within the body of Christ,” he said.
Carter first taught Sunday school when he was an 18-year-old midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. His charges were several dozen 9- to 12-year-old girls who were the daughters of naval personnel.
In the 1960s, Carter served as a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Brotherhood Commission, which recruited men for service-oriented mission work. He also traveled to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts on so-called “pioneer missions,” a phrase used for areas that did not have much of a Southern Baptist presence.
When he was in the White House, he continued his teaching habit about 14 times at First Baptist Church of Washington, quietly arranging with another teacher the days he would lead the Bible lessons.
“It’s just part of my life as a Christian to share my abilities and my influence and so forth with others who might consider Christianity as a commitment,” he said.
One of his favorite Bible passages, Luke 4:18-19, is the theme of the New Baptist Covenant meeting. In it, Jesus speaks of preaching to the poor and freeing the oppressed.
The 83-year-old Carter sounds more pastoral than presidential when he speaks of his long-term desire to bring Baptists together, despite differences they may have on hot-button issues such as homosexuality, abortion or the death penalty.
“Those are not adequate in importance to separate Christians from one another who work in the name of Christ to expand the Christian kingdom in the world,” he said.
Another famous Baptist politician, former President Bill Clinton, said Carter’s faith walk is demonstrated through his efforts to help people across the globe.
“President Carter’s humanitarian efforts … reflect a deep commitment to biblical instruction to promote peace and justice and caring for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized,” he said. “The global impact of his work is profound and inspiring and serves as an outstanding example of the good work each of us can do.”
Between his work on problems of sickness in Africa through the Carter Center and annual commitments to spend a week building affordable housing with Habitat for Humanity, Carter has pulled together meetings of Baptists in hopes they can find common ground. Some efforts have been more successful than others.
A meeting 10 years ago of conservative and moderate Baptists ended with a statement of concern about religious persecution, recalled the Rev. Tom Elliff, who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“By that time, the die was already cast as to which direction our convention was going,” said Elliff, now a senior vice president of his denomination’s International Mission Board.
In 2000, Carter announced that he and his wife Rosalynn would no longer be associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which had begun a conservative turn in 1979.
But, Carter said in an interview, “I never did give up the hope that we could bring as many Baptists together as possible.”
Leaders who worked with Carter on the meeting say he’s been a catalyst but also a servant, even using a computer to type up some information that was needed at a planning meeting.
“A former president, an international statesman who has a humility to get up and go out of the room, type something and bring back your copies — that caught me really off guard,” said the Rev. David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship.
Carter said he plans to reconvene key leaders “probably shortly after Easter,” he said, “to reassess what we’ve done in Atlanta and to say, `Where do we go from here?”‘
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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