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Baptist Leader Speaks of Tradition

BAPTIST LEADER SPEAKS OF TRADITION,  Mark E. Rondeau, staff writer, Bennington Banner

Thursday, June 4

BENNINGTON — First Baptist Church welcomed the head of its denomination at its Sunday service with a trumpeter, choir, special speakers and interfaith guests, with a dinner afterward.

The Rev. Dr. Roy A. Medley is the general secretary of American Baptist Churches, USA, the pastoral and administrative leader of the 1.5 million-member denomination.

"Most Baptists worldwide don't have bishops or an episcopal sort of authority system," said The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, coordinating minister at First Baptist. Still, "we are not just one congregation on our own. We are part of a denomination. We're part of the Protestant tradition. We're part of the wider church."

Medley is "the face of our denomination" at meetings of such groups as the National Council of Churches and the Baptist World Alliance, Hugenot said. "He's also known as the pastor of our denomination, the one who cares and tends for the many people and manyorganizations covenanting together as American Baptists in ministry and mission."

Hugenot noted that Medley goes by his first name and is "an affable, caring, compassionate servant of God."

First Baptist has been on a journey for the past few years: "We're challenged to renew our ministry and become more missional in our understanding of what it means to be part of this community," Hugenot said.

He then unveiled a new welcome sign that will be placed at the entrance Nichols Education Building, describing the church as "A place for healing, community involvement, and spiritual grounding."

"I think this is where we're going," Hugenot said. "This is where God is calling us."

Hugenot noted the guests from other denominations and faiths present for the service, which marked the Christian feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the followers of Jesus.

"The interfaith witness of Bennington Vermont is a treasure we need to celebrate," he said. "Whether you're Baptist or Baha'i, Episcopal or Quaker, Unitarian or Catholic, we work together in this town."

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, of Congregation Beth Israel, and the convener of the Greater Bennington Area Interfaith Council, greeted Medley on behalf of the interfaith council.

Boettiger said that Hugenot and First Baptist have been at the heart of what the council has been able to do in recent years. For instance, the Nichols building at the church hosts the Bennington Free Clinic and Project Against Violent Encounters' Family Time program.

"First Baptist, your community, has really taken it upon yourselves to walk the walk, as they say," Boettiger said. "So let's leap together, let's be audacious together, let's see God in one another, whatever our faith tradition, because surely all of our faiths must teach this: to have holy chutzpah, to have the daring to take a stand and to reach out to one another."

Hugenot, who came to the church in 2006, said that First Baptist has faced some challenges in recent years. Church member Carolyn Peckham spoke of a crisis in 2002 when the oil burner malfunctioned and spewed oily smoke throughout the church. "We really wondered what we were going to do. All we could see were dollar signs."

At that time, the First Baptist choir had been singing periodically the hymn "God Will Make a Way," she said. The church made this First Baptist's theme song and sang it every Sunday until the new refurbished sanctuary was completed. After Peckham spoke, the choir sang this song at Sunday's service.

Church member Cindy Watson spoke of how three volunteers from First Baptist worked for a week earlier this year on a house for a family in New Orleans.

Capping the service, Medley explained the colorful vestment he was wearing. It included colorful stripes and a globe with a cross on it.

"As American Baptists, we are known as probably one of the most diverse mainline denominations in this country. And that's what this stole represents," he said. "It's a sign of the way in which the Holy Spirit is weaving us together out of many different racial backgrounds, cultural and national backgrounds into being one in the body of Christ. All of these stripes coming together represent how God is weaving us together as American Baptists with great diversity, but in our unified sense of service and in our call by Jesus Christ."

Years ago when he was a youth minister at a Baptist church in Trenton, N.J., one of the members of his youth group came up and asked him, "Roy ... I have a question ... Does the Holy Spirit make you do crazy things?"

Medley answered: "Only if you think Jesus was crazy."

"So if you think Jesus was a little crazy. If you think Jesus was out of the box, then yes, the Holy Spirit is going to make you do some crazy things in the eyes of the world," Medley said. "The goal of discipleship, our goal in following Jesus, is to be nurtured and empowered as disciples who are crazy like Jesus, crazy with love and grace for the outcast and ostracized, crazy with concern for the poor and the lame."

American Baptists represent a rich tradition of people "who were willing to be outside of the box, willing to go against the tide of current practice and thinking."

Baptists began as a protest movement 400 years ago this year. They were the underdogs in a religious struggle for freedom of conscience in England, Medley said.

The leader of this tiny group, Thomas Helwys, drafted the first defense of religious liberty in the English language. "He was seen as being dangerous and subversive to the well-being of the community good."

In America, another Baptist, Roger Williams was ostracized by the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his convictions. Evicted from his home he found shelter with Native Americans whom he had earlier defended. Williams later established the colony of Rhode Island, "the first political entity in all of human history to fully guarantee religious liberty to all persons within its boundaries," Medley said.

He said Baptists place a high value on the worth of every individual, and it is this that stands behind their commitment to religious liberty for all. Among the many Baptists in U.S. history embodying this tradition, Medley spoke of Joanna P. Moore, a white Baptist who in the 1800s was a strong opponent of slavery.

After the Civil War, she petitioned the all-male American Baptist Home Mission Society to send her as a missionary among the newly freed slaves. She was denied.

"So like any good Baptist, she ignored the church authorities of her day, and she plowed ahead," Medley said. "She organized the women of the denomination into the Women's Home Mission Society in order that they might support her work, and they sent her into the south."

Moore established hearth-side schools throughout the south so former slaves could learn to read and write. When she died, Moore was buried, as she wished, in the section for blacks in a Nashville cemetery.

"That she might forever rest among those she believe God loved and had called her serve," Medley said. "Joanna P. Moore was a little bit crazy — crazy like Jesus."

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