Many people have asked me how I feel as I step into the role of executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. Excited? Anxious? Unsure about what the future might hold as our country goes through this period of great change and uncertainty?
Yes, I have felt all of those emotions and more, but my overarching feeling is one of gratitude. First, I am thankful to God and for all those in my life who have brought me to this place at this time, to focus on defending and extending religious liberty for all. Second, I am grateful for the BJC’s supporters and staff and my predecessors.
We could not do our work without the steady and generous support and encouragement of so many Baptists and non-Baptists, who are our partners in this cause. Thank you for the many words and acts of encouragement you have already shared. I will be calling on you to become even more engaged in the days to come. I hope that you will reach out to me and others on our team when you encounter issues impacting church-state separation and religious liberty in your communities so that we can be responsive and helpful on the most pressing problems.
I am grateful to the committed and extraordinarily talented BJC staff, who have been working on these important and difficult issues for years. Each of them has gifts and expertise I draw on daily as I get off to a running start.
I am thankful for this organization and for the cloud of witnesses who have come before me both as executive director and in the many positions of service over the past eight decades. Their invaluable contributions to the cause have made the BJC a trusted voice for this time. Having been appointed in September, I could not have predicted the current landscape in which we find ourselves and the immediate and pressing needs for engagement by Baptists committed to religious freedom. The world has never needed the BJC as much as it does right now.
In December, as I was preparing for my move into this position, I watched Barack Obama’s final foreign policy speech of his presidency. In a section near the end of his remarks, he spoke of freedom in a way that caught my attention:
So let my final words to you as your Commander-in-Chief be a reminder of what it is that you’re fighting for, what it is that we are fighting for. The United States of America is not a country that imposes religious tests as a price for freedom. We’re a country that was founded so that people could practice their faiths as they choose. The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny, or carry a special ID card, or prove that they’re not an enemy from within. We’re a country that has bled and struggled and sacrificed against that kind of discrimination and arbitrary rule, here in our own country and around the world.
While President Obama was addressing a military audience, his words of “what it is that we are fighting for” ring true for me as a centering point at this critical time of transition. What it means to be an American includes the promise of religious freedom. And being a Baptist includes the responsibility to defend religious liberty. The Baptist history of persecution as a religious minority teaches us that the blood, struggle and sacrifice are not metaphorical and not just from the battlefield. The BJC fights for both the constitutional protection of religious liberty through separation of church and state and – more fundamentally – for religious freedom as necessary for soul freedom to build a relationship with God free from outside interference.
At the September celebration of Brent Walker’s remarkable 27 years of ministry at the BJC, I had the honor of offering the benediction. I revisit and share these words as an expression of not just my prayer of gratitude for Brent’s selfless leadership, but also of my hope for our shared days ahead. I remain grateful and ready to continue to fight for religious freedom.
Freedom-giving God, we thank you for sharing your remarkable servant Brent with all of us, whose lives he has touched in immeasurable ways, and for the countless others who are not here with us tonight but whose religious liberty has been protected and enhanced by Brent’s ministry at the Baptist Joint Committee. Let each of us leave this place inspired anew to do the hard but rewarding work of not just loving but really knowing our neighbor, of speaking truth to power in all its forms, of listening to your call in each of our lives to find our own unique ways to make a difference in this beautiful yet broken world that you love so much. Amen.