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Global challenges of racism recapped by summit speakers

ATLANTA (BP)–The rights of aboriginals in Australia and Native Americans and Hispanics in the United States; concern for refugees and foreigners in the Dominican Republic and Western Europe; and tribal conflicts in Rwanda and northeast India — these were among the challenges linked to racism reviewed during the Baptist World Alliance’s International Summit of Baptists Against Racism Jan. 8-11 in Atlanta.
Graham Paulsen, the only ordained aboriginal Baptist pastor in Australia, praised Australian Baptists in his address, noting, “The church has led the way for statements of apology but the government has not followed suit.”
While some racial discrimination is based on ignorance and is passed down “from generation to generation,” Paulsen also noted the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Pacific are complex because of the various degrees of acculturation by aboriginals and the impact of colonization policies in different countries.
Paulsen noted the Baptist union, for the first time, has allowed him to make a national appeal for support in his ministry to Australian aboriginals. “There is a groundswell of change in attitude in Baptist churches,” he said.
Russell Begaye, a Navajo Indian who directs multiethnic church planting initiatives of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, described Native Americans as “among the most abused people in the United States. … [We] still struggle even though we are the original owners of this land.” The average income of Native Americans ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 a year, and there is a 70 to 80 percent unemployment rate among Native Americans, Begaye said.
“If you own land as a Native American, you do not qualify for any government assistance,” Begaye stated. “You must first sell the land to get help.”
“So often, racism rests in the ignorance of history,” said Osvaldo L. Mottesi, professor of religion and society at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago.
“Hispanics are not newcomers to the United States,” said Mottesi, who attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta as a seminary student and saw Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother shot to death as she played the organ in church. Mottesi recounted he “grew up in a minority religious situation in Argentina and when I came to the United States I saw I was now an ethnic minority.”
But, he said, “We were here before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. … The roots of Hispanic America are old and deep and not just the recent immigrant wave.”
Mottesi lamented, “the fact that over 25 million Hispanics live in urban poverty with poor housing, no employment and lack of food as a permanent underclass is evidence of discrimination.”
Anne Wilkinson Hayes, minister of South Oxford Street Baptist Church, Oxford, England, who spoke of the discrimination migrant Haitian workers face in the Dominican Republic, said racism is “an evil that damages, demeans and impoverishes brothers and sisters around the world.” She added “it was and still is God’s will to reach out to all with his love and grace.”
Karl Heinz Walter, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, lamented an anti-refugee and anti-foreigner sentiment now sweeping Western Europe. “Racism is also refugees and anti-foreigner attitudes,” Walter noted, adding “hunger and cold” among refugees “is a big problem in Europe.”
“In Europe, this mentality and spirit are found in all parts of society,” Klaus Pritzkuleit of Germany agreed. He said “skinheads,” young people who assert their racial superiority, attack people at the lower levels of society such as contract and migrant workers and refugees from Angola, Mozambique and the former East Germany. “Both the mentality of racial and cultural superiority and economic need drives the skinheads,” he said.
Among the most hopeful words of reconciliation and testimony to the power of Jesus Christ at the summit were voiced by Baptist leaders who have been caught up in ethnic and tribal conflict.
“I am a saved Hutu,” said Celestine Musekwa of Rwanda, who said the genocide in his country could have been avoided. “At critical points, no one worked on reconciliation in the government,” he noted.
For Musekwa , who lost five family members including his father and younger brother in the ethnic war in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the key is forgiveness. “Even as I think of my right to revenge, I remember I have been forgiven by Jesus Christ and I have to give up my right to revenge just as Christ gave up his right to be God.”
Wati Aier, principal of the Oriental Theological Seminary in Dimapur, Nagaland, India, said “it is constant challenge” for believers — caught up in both the fight for political autonomy as a minority people in India and the ethnic wars in which hundreds have been killed — “to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in our political context.”
“The power that sustains me is the person of Jesus Christ,” Aier said.
In describing the relationship between Croatian and Serbian Baptists, Branco Lovrec, president of the Baptist Union of Croatia, said, “… we bring the hope of reconciliation only through Jesus Christ. As soon as the war finished, we went to look for our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.”
“Only we in the churches can bring people together,” Branco said, reporting two new Baptist churches recently had started in former Serbian territory. “To change, you must embrace your former enemies who have killed your families and burnt their houses, and the only way is to be changed inside by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Jorge Lee Galindo, a lawyer and legal counsel for the National Baptist Convention of Mexico, recounted his work as a mediator in the conflict between the Zapatistas, a revolutionary group fighting for the rights of indigenous people in Chiapas state on the Guatemalan border, and the government of Mexico.
“These are non-educated people who live in a precarious situation,” Lee said, “and many of them who are evangelicals suffer because of their religion.” He said constitutional reform is needed to address their injustices. For peace to come, “we need mutual forgiveness,” Lee said. “This is difficult to give, but wherever it is achieved, it brings hope.”
Desmond Hoffmeister, general secretary of the Baptist Convention of South Africa, also had a word of hope on the role of the church. “In South Africa, we have seen the best and the worst of Christianity,” he said. “It was religion that supported apartheid, but it was also religion that resisted apartheid and provided for us also a way to find reconciliation.”

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  • Wendy Ryan