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Vestal: Poverty is top moral issue; CBF & BGCT building close ties

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–The government of the United States must make changes in its practices and programs so that more money is distributed to the poor, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Coordinator Daniel Vestal said in his address to the fellowship’s annual General Assembly in Grapevine, Texas, July 1.

Vestal said he told White House representatives at a recent interfaith conference on ending world hunger that he and other people of faith want President Bush to use his spiritual, moral and political leadership to address “what many of us believe is the moral issue of our day … global poverty.” Christians must enter into the suffering of the poor, Vestal said.

“What is clear to me is that prosperity is on the rise for many. But what is equally clear is that there is a growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ There is a growing gulf between the rich and the poor and between the rich nations and the poor nations,” Vestal said. “My brothers and sisters, we will partake of the suffering of poor people only when we are willing to make changes.”

Vestal also said that being Christ’s continual presence in the world means exercising solidarity with others. “This seems to be one of the radical characteristics of Jesus and one reason He was so controversial.

“He ate with sinners and identified with outcasts. He didn’t see a hierarchical relationship between men and women, but treated them as equals. He was unimpressed with status and the artificial divisions between people. For Jesus, people were more important than institutions and traditions. And He had great compassion and love,” Vestal said.

Proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ also is part of being the presence of Christ in the world, Vestal said. Salvation, he said, does not only mean the forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. “Salvation also means the transformation of character and the transformation of culture into a just society,” he said.

“Look around you tonight. We are the body of Christ. Christ is in us,” Vestal said. “Do you really believe this? Because if you do, it will change how you view the church. No longer will you see that church primarily in organizational, institutional, denominational categories.”

Registration at the CBF’s annual meeting climbed to more than 2,800 by the close of the gathering. Philip Wise, chairman of the 2005 General Assembly steering committee and a member of the CBF Coordinating Council, said the meeting was “the largest registration of any [General A]ssembly ever held in Texas.”

The large attendance was partly the result of the involvement of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. CBF leaders in Texas during their annual breakout session cited growing revenues and more partnerships with BGCT initiatives as evidence of the strength of the organization in the state.

“The budget is growing and we have more money to spend; we need to celebrate that,” said Brad Russell, chair of the Texas CBF finance committee. Representatives with the BGCT’s Church Multiplication Center reported that the CBF had planted 12 churches in the state this year.

The CBF also cited partnerships with several theological schools in Texas as a sign of strength in the state. Thomas V. Brisco, dean of the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin Simmons University, said he was pleased with the support his school had received for the CBF participants. He also appealed for greater giving to the schools, as did Paul Powell, dean of Truett Theological Seminary on the campus of Baylor University.

Powell said he is confident in the leadership of Baylor University’s Interim President Bill Underwood, whom he said pledged to “tie the strings” of the Waco university “as tight as possible to Texas Baptists.” The CBF also partners with the Baptist studies program at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School and the Baptist University of the Americas (BUA) in San Antonio.

Albert Reyes, president of the BUA and the first Hispanic elected as BGCT president, addressed participants at the General Assembly, encouraging them to “be the presence of Christ” in their own neighborhoods. “For many of us, the nations have become our neighbors and we’re not sure what we are supposed to do,” Reyes said. He said Texas Baptists, through 23 BGCT-related institutions, are touching at least 10 percent of the population of Texas each year.

Texas Baptists Committed Executive Director David Currie encouraged CBF participants to continue making statements about the strength of Texas Baptists. “This is such a unique convention. It is a beacon. It is important to make some statements. We have our first Hispanic president, soon our first black president and soon our first woman president,” Currie said.

He also said participants in the Texas CBF should avoid thinking “that we don’t still have enemies. We do. The group that comes to the defense of this organization and Texas Baptists the fastest and the strongest is this one [Texas Baptists Committed]. We don’t need to do that much anymore. To be honest, I sort of miss the chance to do so,” Currie said.

In other business, Gus Reyes, ethnic consultant with the BGCT, was elected a member of the CBF’s national Coordinating Council.

Vestal declined to be interviewed about the growing partnership between the CBF and BGCT. However, CBF spokesman Lance Wallace issued a statement citing “close ties” between the two groups “as respected co-laborers in carrying out the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“The Fellowship is grateful for the support and participation of the BGCT in the 2005 General Assembly in Grapevine, and we look forward to collaborating on ministry efforts in the future,” the statement said.

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  • Gregory Tomlin