Open House at the new Baptist Joint Committee on Religious LibertyWritten by Don Byrd

I had the great pleasure of spending the past few days with my good friends at the Baptist Joint Committee during the annual Board of Directors meeting (which somehow was my first BJC Board meeting). It was great to meet board members, put names with faces, and speak in person with so many BJC blog readers!

Also, I have to say: I left with a much different feeling than I expected when I arrived. Let me explain.

As readers of the blog likely know, BJC executive director Brent Walker has announced his well-deserved retirement, effective at the end of this year. Brent’s legacy of accomplishments has left a deep and lasting impression on the landscape of religious liberty for all Americans. His tenure of service at the BJC advances the tradition of impassioned Baptists of principle, from Roger Williams to James Dunn, who have stood firm for the twin pillars lifting up our precious first freedom: the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state.

I knew that during the board meeting there would be very appropriate moments of thanks to Brent for his amazing dedication and hard work, for his strong leadership at the helm of the BJC, and for his friendship and personal support. Brent means a lot to so many folks. So, I went to the meetings with a heart full of gratitude and admiration, ready to commemorate the end of this important chapter in the history of the BJC. And there was opportunity for all of that. But something else happened as well – something more like a kick in the pants.

During these couple of board meeting days, religious liberty expert Charles Haynes (of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute) delivered a heart-pounding address about the increasing threats to religious liberty in America, particularly the rise of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other hostility toward religious minorities here at home. Rabbi David Saperstein likewise spoke fervently of the important work Brent and the BJC have done, while insisting with real urgency that there has never been a time of greater need for the signature voice of the BJC than there is today. 

Board members spoke about church-state challenges and controversies in their own communities. We engaged in important conversations about the meaning of the phrase “religious liberty” itself and the way that definition can profoundly impact the daily lives of all Americans.

How could I not feel inspired? In the arena of religious liberty for all, there are so many accomplishments to build upon, but so much work still to be done.

To top it off, the board announced the hiring of Brent’s successor, Amanda Tyler, to lead the BJC beginning in 2017. It was immediately clear why she is the right choice. (You can read details about Amanda’s bio and resume here. And please watch this brief video introducing her as the BJC’s next director.) As you will see, Amanda brings an abiding commitment to religious freedom and church-state separation, has strong ties to the Baptist Joint Committee, and a deep understanding of its heritage.

As I left the meetings for home today, I felt less like a chapter of BJC history is coming to an end and more like an exciting new chapter is getting started. This stalwart, 80-year voice for historic Baptist principles of religious liberty for all has never been needed more than it is today; and thanks to Brent’s leadership, it has never been better positioned to lead the way.

I guess what I am trying to say is, I’m fired up! Who’s with me?