Defending minorities very Baptist, Wright-Riggins tells BJC luncheon

By ABP News
June 20, 2008
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Baptists, of all people, should defend the rights of minorities against the majority, an American Baptist leader told supporters of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty June 20.

“To live with the minority experience is to live with the fear of being forgotten and excluded. It is the feeling of foreignness, of not belonging. It is to live in the reality of what Ralph Ellison called the ‘Invisible Man’ — to be present, but not counted; speaking, but not being heard,” said Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of the American Baptist Churches USA’s National Ministries. He spoke to about 425 guests at the annual luncheon meeting of the Religious Liberty Council, the BJC’s organization for individual donors. The luncheon was held during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, Tenn.

Wright-Riggins said identification with the minority experience should be at the center of Baptist and Christian identity. “The road to somebody-ness is always about resolve and resistance. And Baptists, my brothers and sisters, have always pulled alongside those who were dedicated to resolve and resistance on the road to somebody-ness,” he noted.

“Baptists respect human nature and human dignity. Baptists fight for the rights of others to speak their own mind and live their own truths. … We believe in a free state — but we also believe in a free church, where the god of the majority is never forced upon the consciences of the minority.”

Wright-Riggins, who is African-American, said the question of race had reared its familiar head in this presidential election for all Americans — but it was hitting home for him especially.

He noted that his organization runs Judson Press, American Baptists’ publishing arm. Judson has published several books by Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and Wright-Riggins said he has gotten letters he described as “vicious” and “vitriolic.”

They asked him to denounce Wright. But Wright-Riggins responded, “Let the church be Baptist and affirm the right of all of us to speak.”

He read a passage from Joshua 22 that detailed the experience of the ancient Israelite tribes that lived across the Jordan from the rest of their kinsmen — and eventually became regarded as something less than true Israelites.

The other Israelites dismissed them, the passage says, telling them, “You have no part in God.” In defiance, the Reubenites, Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar to Yahweh in their territory to assert their Jewishness.

“In an attempt to affirm their own somebody-ness, somebody told them, ‘Let’s build an altar, to say that we count too….’ Isn’t it interesting how the Bible itself can be used as a tool — as a divisive instrument and a ‘thingification’ tool?”

In other business, BJC supporters heard an update on the group’s capital campaign to establish a permanent building for the BJC, called the Center for Religious Liberty, on Capitol Hill. Reginald McDonough, the campaign chairman, said BJC has received commitments for about half of the $5 million goal. Of that, $2 million is already in the bank, allowing the organization to move ahead with picking out a property.

“The good news is: We’re halfway there.” McDonough said. “The challenge is: We’re halfway there.”

Religious Liberty Council supporters also re-elected their officers and approved four new board members to serve three-year terms.

Hal Bass, a professor at OuachitaBaptistUniversity in Arkadelphia, Ark., and a member of FirstBaptistChurch there, was re-elected co-chair, along with Cynthia Holmes, a St. Louis attorney and member of OverlandBaptistChurch. Henry Green, pastor of HeritageBaptistChurch in Annapolis, Md., was re-elected the group’s secretary.

Supporters affirmed the board appointments of Terri Phelps, a member of HighlandBaptistChurch in Louisville, Ky.; Joey Kennedy, a member of SouthsideBaptistChurch in Birmingham, Ala.; Mitch Randall, a member of NorthHavenChurch in Norman, Okla.; and Beverly McNally, a member of Christ Congregation in Princeton, N.J.


View more information on previous luncheons