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ABC President’s Report April 7, 2015

I have been in office for 15 months and with 9 more months to go. I have visited a number of the regions that you serve and have been thankful for those opportunities to see a vital part of ABC life in faithful service in the name of our Lord. These visits and hours of conversations with you have been a blessing in informing me about how I see the state of our denomination.

Who Are We?

Sometimes I sense that we are American Baptists by name only. We have a memory of what it used to be. We have heard and perhaps read about the years when it seems like we were all on the same page. And we can probably say that we thought this was true in our society as well. While we know that Father Knows Best or the Brady Butch were idealized images of the American dream, we in some way believed that we were still on the same page. So much of the world has now changed. Many people have personal devices that they can escape into their peculiar world and no guest star on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night can get us to tune in together so that we can all be on the same page.

All of us can probably say that the denomination experienced a major earthquake over the topic of homosexuality in the church. And for more than 20 years now, we are still feeling aftershocks. We have been performing some retrofits to rebuild but the casualty cases have yet to settle all the claims. When I became president, I said, “I am president of all American Baptists and not just for some.” For me, it was a matter of personal integrity as I strive to bring about welcome to the table of our Lord.

As I look around this room, I would like us to have an ongoing dialog over controversial issues. I believe that if this group of ABC leaders can have conversations that are redeeming and meaningful in light of our theological diversity, and then we might model for the rest of the ABC pastoral leaders and they with their congregations that they can do this too. Have we 21st century Baptists become so afraid of differences of opinions and biblical interpretations that we have in so few words stopped practicing soul liberty?

Caring for Each Other

On New Year’s Day, I traveled to Portland, Maine to participate in Table Conversations on the topic of “Creating Sacred Space for Millennials.” Al Fletcher told me that most of his churches are now so small that they can’t afford any full-time pastor. I met a number of pastors who were pastoring 2 and 3 churches at the same time. But they were there to share and learn from each other on how they can be sustainable when youth and young adults leave for college and more promising jobs in Boston and beyond and never come back.

Recently, I had lunch with the pastor of the UCC Chinese church in Chinatown just 2 short blocks from my church. He told me that they received no new members last year but had a number of significant church leaders going home to God. The thought that was in my mind is what can FCBC do to help support our sister UCC church only 2 short blocks away. Over lunch, the UCC pastor and I talked about what might happen if we got our two youth groups together and perhaps the next generation may learn that while our denominational badges are rich with history and traditions, we believe in the same Jesus. On Easter morning, the youth from our two churches led our ecumenical Sunrise Service at 7:00 outside in San Francisco Chinatown.

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As I look around this room, I wonder if significant and fairly large churches in your regions can practice how the New Testament churches came to the aid of others who were in need of help. What would happen when churches begin to adopt other churches in need of some help? Could this lead us to become the catalyst that may bring renewal one church at a time?

Building Bridges to a New Community

Some of us can still remember the Fund of Renewal back in the early 1970s. Besides the campaign to raise funds for historic ABC black colleges and racial/ethnic projects, there was an educational component called, “Building Bridges to a New Community.” Since the last time we met, our country and our churches continue to experience great racial unrest and cynicism. Some people don’t view law enforcement as their guardians and the justice system as fair. Some prejudge people for the color of their skin. Some harbor deep hurts from past grievances that affect our clear thinking today. Have we learned anything from the Building Bridges program over 40 years ago?

As I look around this room, I hope I won’t be the first and only Asian American to serve as ABC President. I pray that white people would feel welcomed and free to talk about race and whatever may be on their hearts without the fear of recrimination or coming across as prejudiced. I pray that people of color would recognize that in our denomination that is becoming more diverse with no one in the majority that we don’t fall into the trap of privilege and dominating the discussion. If we say that we are a family—building bridges to a new community—I hope that we would treat one another, as we would like to be treated.

Leaders to Trust

We know that in the coming months and near future, we will begin to see a tremendous transition in denominational leadership. There will be new people sitting around the tables of the NEC and the REMC. The Baby-Boomers generation like me will give up our chairs because we have adequately invested in MMBB. And MMBB has faithfully and carefully steward our pension plans.

I believe that we have long passed the time when we idealized or even worship our leaders by the mere fact that they are sitting in those chairs. No longer do we have that naiveté. While we know that no one leader is perfect and has all the gifts and abilities to performed all the responsibilities assigned, what we are looking for is a leader whom we can trust. We are seeking leaders who put up with the crap because he/she is called by Christ to do so. We want leaders who believe that American Baptists have indeed the truth of Christ to proclaim in our peculiar Baptist way. We want leaders whom we can trust to watch our backs when we risk for Christ.

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As I look around this room, I wonder if we would not just pray for the new leaders who will be sitting in these chairs but might we also step up to publically support them and to serve on working groups and teams because you have something unique and special to offer that no one else can. Imagine the wealth of resources you may bring to strengthen our denomination in the days and years to come.

Common Vision

Like most of you, I have been an American Baptist for as long as I can remember. But in recent years as fore mentioned above, we have lifted up our differences and pluralism more than our unity and agreements. As human beings, we would naturally gravitate toward those whom we are like. We are tribal in our default settings. But as the Body of Christ, we are not just human beings, but we are now made new, the new creation in Jesus Christ.

This means that we are different from how the world sees itself. We must not just model for the world that in Christ, we honor one another and we welcome each other as sisters and brothers, but we do that with each other as well. Why should we even remain as a denomination when we don’t have a common vision? While we can still grant each other soul liberty to interpret Scripture in the communion of others and draw our own conclusions, we are still in need of a common vision. We know that we are blessed with the tie that binds in Christ, what else ties us together now? I don’t know what that common vision might be but I trust that in God’s Spirit as our Guide, we would find one when we trust in the Lord.

As I look around the room, I pray that when we attend the Biennial Mission Summit this June that we don’t only see this as our biennial reunion of old friends and colleagues. I hope that we don’t automatically attend the events and functions that are more compatible with our own persuasions. But can we become the genesis of a common vision rooted in Jesus Christ and made particular in American Baptist to become a community of faithfulness and hope in a world that is desperately in need of a good word? What would happen when we reach out to others who are not like us? We will begin to transform the entire climate of our fellowship.

As I am going around the denomination calling people to cease being isolated in their comfortable silos and to become the true beloved community, I cannot not expect to call you to that same high call.

I have a daughter who is an ABC minister. I hope and pray that one or more of my 6 grandchildren might be called by God to become an ABC minister. What we can do today will set the wheels turning so that there may be a promising future for the next generations coming after us. I would hate to be credited to be a part of denominational hospice when we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thank you for your time and attentiveness and I’ll pray for you and your ministries as I know that you will pray for me as your president and always as your colleague in ministry.

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