By Tyrone Pitts
I first met Brent Walker in 1989 when I directed the Department of Racial Justice for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and he had just joined the Baptist Joint Committee as associate general counsel. Little did I know then that he would become a friend, a confidant and an adviser to me on church-state issues.
Brent, Oliver “Buzz” Thomas and James Dunn became champions for the issues of religious liberty. Almost every denomination in the ecumenical movement was engaged. Brent’s academic and calm demeanor, Buzz’s southern style and James’ ability to charm everyone with anecdotes and humor presented an unbeatable dream team.
During my tenure on the board, the Baptist Joint Committee was undergoing tremendous challenges with the Southern Baptist Convention as well as attacks on the Free Exercise Clause and the separation of church and state, while at that same time it focused on its mission to “defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all.” As part of the diverse Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, Brent and the BJC staff led the way in the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In 1999, the BJC Board unanimously elected Brent, a theologian and an attorney, as the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, as successor to James Dunn. How we all remember that wonderful moment in the BJC’s history! Over the years, his contribution to religious liberty has been far-reaching and national in scope and has organized communities who previously were not involved in religious liberty and church-state issues. Brent has been instrumental in engaging an inclusive staff with students and community leaders, restructuring and revitalizing the BJC and changing its name to better reflect its mission.
One of the high points in my career as General Secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., was to serve as chair of the Baptist Joint Committee Board of Directors. I had the privilege of participating in resolving the dispute between the Southern Baptist Convention and the BJC over a considerable sum of money. Brent’s role in this effort as associate general counsel was something I will never forget. As we entered into negotiations, his southern twang and his focus on details calmed my spirits.
The BJC will never be the same without Brent. We salute him for his faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, his ability to transform challenges into opportunities and his willingness to give himself totally to Christ and his ministry.
The Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts is general secretary emeritus for the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., and a former BJC Board chair.
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