Unity isn’t something we create. God has created unity in the forming of the church. It’s divisions we create, and it’s our task to try to bring down those divisions.” roymedleyedited

A conversation with American Baptist leader Roy Medley

A. Roy Medley retired Dec. 31 as General Secretary of American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), a post he had held since Jan. 1, 2002, covering four terms.

Honored as General Secretary Emeritus, his 14 years of service make him one of the longest serving ABCUSA general secretaries. He previously served as Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey and as national director of the Neighborhood Action Program of American Baptist National Ministries.

Medley serves on the Baptist World Alliance General Council and Executive Committee and is chair of the BWA Commission on Interfaith Relations and the Membership Committee. He recently represented BWA at the Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome. He is also chair of the National Council of Churches, USA.

During his final days of leading American Baptists, he talked with editor John Pierce about his experiences. This conversation is adapted from that interview.

BT: As your long tenure representing and leading American Baptists comes to an end, to what are you giving the most time and energy?

RM: You always want to make sure you’re transitioning well, and Susan Gillies was just named to succeed me as interim.

We’re in the third initiative with the Baptist-Muslim dialogue here in the U.S., and it’s shaping up a little differently than the first two, which were primarily academic — talking about the basis in scripture for the common ground we have in our understanding of love of neighbor and love of God.

For this third one we want to do a conference for Baptist and Muslim religious leaders who are 40 and younger — and hopefully bring them in as pairs from the same area so we might create a covenant with one another and between their congregations and the mosques in terms of building understanding and working for the common good in their own communities.

So, making sure things are in place for that to move forward has been a big part of closing down right now for me.

BT: There was a lot of hostility toward Muslims following the Paris attacks. How does that impact this process?

RM: I think that it’s even more important. We started these dialogues several years ago. We encouraged several of our seminaries to hold regional dialogues. The one Central Seminary held in Kansas City came the weekend after the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

The things we had anticipated they’d talk about weren’t on the table. It was: “What are you telling your children as Christians about what happened?” And Christians asking the Muslims: “How are you talking to your children?”

“How do our children live together in these same schools and not have this become a divisive thing?” Very practical things like that.

The way in which many Muslim youth are radicalized means that it’s all the more important that we engage our religious leaders — particularly younger ones — with one another so that we can work together to help stymie some of the radicalization that takes place, but also to build a sense in which we really do learn to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and express that in very concrete ways.

These attacks, not just in Paris but in Beirut and elsewhere, signal the importance of the Christian community living as a community of Shalom. I’m so impressed with the Lebanese Baptists in the midst of all of this strife as they are taking in countless thousands of refugees from Syria into Lebanon.

The Baptists there have said: We’re not going to live out of fear. We’re going to live out of love. They’ve been providing clothing, housing, whatever [the refugees] need.

That’s such a critical witness to the churches here in America as we hear so much anti-Syrian immigrant rhetoric and the fear that is just gripping so many people. Now it’s an opportunity for the Christian community to live out of a sense of hope and love and redemptive purpose rather than fear.

These dialogues help bring us into a place with our Muslim neighbors where we can talk about those things that really are scary to us, but are scary to them too.

I was at the Islamic Society of North America gathering over Labor Day weekend. They had invited me to receive an award for the work we have been doing, but I was amazed at the number of workshops offered on helping their young people see the dangers of radicalization — working with parents on that.

We don’t begin our American Baptist biennial meetings with the trooping of the colors. But they did — and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Islamic Society of North America and other Muslim entities here in the U.S. are working very hard against the radicalization of youth and for the rights of Christians as minority communities in predominantly Muslim communities as well as in Muslim countries.

All those are really important reasons for us to make common cause with Muslims who value peace, who prize religious liberty and pluralism in a common setting, and for us to continue to build relationships with them.

BT: Are you saying that by fostering personal relationships it becomes harder to generalize?

RM: Exactly. When you have a relationship with someone, the stereotypes begin to fall away. My goodness, people visit doctors who are Muslim all the time. They are throughout medical practices in the United States. We put our lives into their hands every day.

Personal relationships bring down the barriers and stereotypes that we have of each other. And they have many stereotypes of us as Baptists. It helps to break down stereotypes on both sides.
BT: Most stereotypes of Baptists probably come from the ones who get the most press.

RM: Well yes, unfortunately, yes.

BT: How do you explain Baptists to those unfamiliar with or misinformed about this branch of the Christian faith?

RM: That’s interesting. I was just in Rome for three weeks and stayed at a Jesuit center and had opportunities to talk with a lot of the priests there. They came from around the world and were curious about who Baptists are.

When they heard “American Baptists,” they thought that’s all the Baptists in America — so explaining about who we are as American Baptists was interesting.

Many years ago when I was first working at Valley Forge, we had an Episcopal laywoman helping us develop our ministry with the aging.

One day she said: I’m Episcopalian. If you think of us in terms of the Trinity, we are really big on God the Father, God the Creator. I have Pentecostal friends, and they’re really big on the Spirit. But you Baptists are really Jesus people.

That has always stuck with me. I think the easiest way to describe us, as Baptists, is people who love Jesus and want to follow him in our lives — and in that relationship to give our lives to others.

There are distinctives about us within the Christian community. We’re a believers’ church, and that is so important in our understanding of the way faith is formed. Personal commitment to Christ is central.

There are other distinctives as well in terms of our commitment to religious liberty. It’s one of the greatest gifts that we have given the world. It’s enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights now.

That commitment to conscience: you can’t make a free choice for Jesus if you don’t respect the conscience of people. If you constrain people to believe, there is no belief. That commitment to religious liberty comes out of our understanding of the nature of faith and the importance of each person’s choice in that.

Those are some of the ways I describe us. I talk about us being a people who want to invite others into that love, but we also want to serve others because of that love whether they become Christians or not. We want to serve them because they’re beloved of God and because Christ gave his life for them as much as he gave his life for us.

We have a long tradition of concern for the poor, for those who are marginalized — because we began not as a community of those who are wealthy or those who are in power, but very much people who were on the fringe.

I often refer to us as being rascally Baptists because early leaders like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were oppressed because of their faith and driven out of Massachusetts, yet were scrappy people who believed in religious liberty and the right to conscience so deeply that they were willing to be exiled for that and went to create places where people could live their faith.

That’s the stock we come out of: people who haven’t necessarily been at the center. I think that gives us a different perspective as a people.

BT: What about American Baptists in particular?

RM: What drew me to American Baptists was that here are people who truly love Jesus — and how that pietistic, evangelical sense also has a social justice sense. Christ calls us to be a voice in the world and not to pull apart in a sectarian way, but to really be embedded in the life of the world and in our communities.

American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch of the social gospel movement was a pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and saw what child labor was doing. He felt the church ought to have a word to say about that and a way of helping to redeem social institutions that were crippling people’s lives. That’s a rich tradition in ABC life.

Joanna P. Moore was a scrappy woman who after the War Between the States petitioned American Baptists to be appointed to work among the newly freed slaves in the South, and they wouldn’t let her. It was all men making this decision.

So she created a Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, was named their first missionary and they appointed her to the South where she lived among former slaves. She was buried in a segregated cemetery in Nashville. Her will stipulated that she be buried in the “colored” part of the cemetery because those were her people.

That history of witness for social justice runs strong and deep in ABC life — not just in words, but in deeds. That really drew me to ABC. It’s in the motto of Eastern Seminary: “The whole gospel for the whole world.”

It’s a commitment to seeing life in Christ lived more broadly than just a personal transaction between me and God. Faith is never private; it’s always public. That is what I love about American Baptists. That’s been a rich gift to me.

BT: Diversity takes more than a large dose of idealism. Is it possible to have authentic diversity within congregations and denominations and, if so, what does it take?

RM: Yes, I think it is. But bringing down walls is always difficult. When Paul, in Ephesians, talks about the Spirit creating a new humanity he gives three great divisions that characterized the world of his era: Jew and Greek, male and female, free and slave — and how in Christ those divisions no longer were to be barriers in the life of the church.

I see in our congregations and in our denomination ways in which diversity is lived out well. We have a church in Newark, N.J., that has 35 nationalities present in that worshipping congregation — and they have made it work.

My older son Ethan and his wife Urbi — she’s African American — are going to Calvary Baptist Church in Clifton, N.J., which is an international congregation. Not huge, but people from Romania, a lot of Filipinos, African Americans and Euro-Americans. It’s a great place for them and for our grandson.

So diversity is possible, but it takes a lot of grace. It takes the ability to step back from one’s own culture and presuppositions and ask questions about the other’s perspective.

One learning moment for me came when I was the Area Minister in New Jersey. A good friend on the board is an African-American woman. We were talking about our two teenage boys coming up to the age when they were getting their driver’s licenses.

We were talking about insurance rates going through the roof and all. Then she started talking about what she had to tell her son as a young, black teenager in New Jersey in order to protect himself if pulled over by the police.

She was just sharing; she wasn’t being bombastic or anything. This was just life for her, and she was talking about what she was telling her son.

I said, “Loretta, I’ve never thought of having to say any of that to my boy.” That’s when you begin to ask: What does reality look like from that person’s position?

You can live into an intercultural, multicultural setting because you have new eyes and new sensitivities. We primarily live parallel lives in our culture, but there are places for deep friendships across race and other divisions in our culture.

When I talk with seminarians I say: First, you need some training in being in a multi-cultural world because that is the world in which we live. The second is interfaith. We live in a religiously plural country. Having interfaith sensitivities is needed — knowing people of other faiths so we can easily make friends of them.

So, I think diversity is possible. We’re seeing it lived out in congregations and in ABC life. It’s a struggle at times. People don’t see eye to eye within congregations and certainly not within denominations. But I find when people are filled with grace, and live into mercy toward others, it’s a huge step.

BT: Earlier you talked about participating in a gathering in Rome, and recently I saw your photo with the pope. What were those experiences like?

RM: It was a great honor to represent the Baptist World Alliance in that setting, and we were accorded the privilege of having a fraternal delegate at the Synod on the Family because of the Roman Catholic-Baptist dialogues that BWA sponsors.

As fraternal delegates, we were allowed to be in the plenary sessions but [have] no voice and no vote — except we were each given a three-minute moment to speak in the plenary small groups.

We had full access to the conversation. As we were going through the document, there were places where I said: “I think there’s something missing here,” or in one place I said I was upset about the way they were referring to Protestants. They asked that I suggest a change.

I said, “Take it out” — and they took it out. I found that there was great respect accorded to me.

At some of these conversations, not so much with the Cardinals but others there, we’d be talking about something and I’d give my perspective. And they’d say, “I could be a Baptist.” There was a great deal of interest and, I think, appreciation for our perspective in some of the items they were talking about.

I came away deeply grateful for the ministry of Francis. He is breathing a breath of fresh air into the Roman Catholic Church — a breath of mercy that is much needed not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but the church at large.

He is working very hard to reposition the [Catholic] church away from privilege and power and toward being a servant church. In that, there is a lot in common between his spirit and the spirit that is present in the Baptist community, and I’m really grateful for him and for his leadership in this way.

I was in Argentina a couple of years ago to speak to Argentinian Baptists right after he had been elected. They had such good words to say about him from their experience. He has continued that openness, that humility, that emphasis on the church being a community of servants and a place that lives grace. I think that’s important for all of us.

BT: Your willingness to serve as chair of the National Council of Churches suggests you value ecumenical cooperation. Why is that important to you?

RM: I grew up with Methodists and Pentecostals and other good friends who were following Jesus just as I was. So I’ve always understood that Baptists weren’t the only Christians.

The last prayer our Savior prayed before he was crucified was that we might be one. That’s pretty serious stuff.

So when I was a local pastor I worked with other pastors in our community. When I was serving in New Jersey in several capacities, I worked with different expressions of the Christian faith to tackle issues we were facing there.

Unity isn’t something we create. God has created unity in the forming of the church. It’s divisions we create, and it’s our task to try to bring down those divisions. I know a lot of people start talking about a world church as though there is something heinous about that.

The thing that I’ve found in the ecumenical movement is that it creates an appreciation for the gifts and emphases that various expressions of the Christian body offer to one another. My wife is a Lutheran pastor, and I have found in the Lutheran tradition things that have deepened my faith.

We have American Baptists going on personal spiritual retreats that are looking at older forms of spirituality. When I was in Rome, one item in the document they were writing was about the importance of family worship. In Baptist life we would have talked about that in earlier years as having a family altar.

The strong emphasis I found in the meeting in Rome around scripture is a gift we gave to the Roman Catholic Church — not just Baptists, but as Protestants in general. The emphasis on Holy Scripture is taking on a new prominence in the Roman Catholic Church.

At the same time we are drawing from them some older forms of spiritual practices that can enhance our lives as Baptists. With our United Methodist friends, we are looking at the strong emphasis on putting people in small groups for forming communities.

Our Pentecostal brothers and sisters emphasize the work of the Spirit — not just personally, but in the life of the church. I hear more and more in mainline Protestant circles an emphasis on the work of the Spirit. I think all of those are ways in which we enhance one another and learn from each other.

At times we are able to speak with a common voice. Here in the U.S., the National Association of Evangelicals, the Catholic Bishops in the U.S. and the National Council of Churches have all made statements on poverty and immigration. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between any of them.

There is a sense of the Spirit pulling us together on some of those issues we face. It is another expression of an ecumenical spirit of saying we can live and work with one another, respecting differences but also knowing those differences are not as great as the unity that’s given us because we confess Jesus as Lord.

BT: Your long tenure with American Baptists suggests you have not given up on denominationalism. What do you see as the benefits of denominational identity and cooperation?

RM: Fred Rogers was once asked what he had learned about children, of most importance, during his years with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He said: “Children long to belong.”

I think that’s present within us not just as children. It is an expression of the fact that we’re created in the image of God and the nature of God is Trinitarian — so there’s community within the life of the Godhead, and that community is to be lived out in the expression of the church as well.

That means an independent church of any type is an oxymoron. There is no such thing in the New Testament as an independent church. So finding ways in which we give expression to that organic unity is important, and I think denominations do that.

Being part of a larger family gives an opportunity to stretch in ways that one would not have been stretched before and to introduce new understandings of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

As Baptists, we’ve always said we join together to do things we can do together better. The mission work that we do is incredibly important, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I get upset with Baptists when they cite that as the only reason we live in community as congregations — because I don’t think that’s good New Testament ecclesiology. It is one aspect of how living in community with other congregations strengthens our witness within the life of the world.

Early Baptists met on a regular basis to support one another and to assist in developing common mission strategies for their own areas where churches needed to be started. All that was common thinking among Baptists, and it would enhance our life if we came back to more of a sense of common life together. It’s really important for individual churches to be embedded in a larger community of faith.

BT: During your time as General Secretary, there have been significant social changes that have impacted and continue to impact churches and denominational groups — including the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships, the rise of the “nones” and “dones,” the growing threat of religiously motivated terrorism and more. How do you think American Christians, and Baptists in particular, are doing in the midst of such drastic change and the challenges they bring?

RM: It’s the question of our day, isn’t it? What is the future of the church and local congregations in a culture that is shifting and has shifted so much?

First, I believe there is power in the gospel to change lives and that as the church continues to give witness to that gospel, it will continue to attract people and will continue to change people. But congregations are going to have to be willing to change as well.

Baptists have never stood for an established church, but we have benefitted like every church in America from what was seen as being the Christian culture. We don’t have that crutch to stand on any longer.

I preached at Prairie Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., recently and said that churches can make an impact when there are three critical things present.

One is worship that is transformative — not just entertainment. I made a modest proposition that in the narthex of every church we put up a sign that says: “Warning! Danger ahead! You will be changed by being here.”

Life for the 12 disciples wasn’t easy with Jesus. He was always pushing them, stretching them, challenging their understanding of what God was up to. He blew open their narrow vision of what this Messiah was to be and do.

I think God does the same thing to us … as we worship today. The goal of worship is to reform us and recast us — to reconvert us to Jesus each time we enter worship.

Second, community is essential. Because of the emphasis on the individual, we Baptists can have a hyper-individualist view of the life of the church. It’s like, “I’m here as an individual believer and I’ll stay as long as it tickles my fancy.”

But we grow in our capacity to follow Jesus because the church lives his life into us. That’s what happened to me as a boy growing up in a congregation and is still what happens to me today: people live Jesus into me. Having a sense of community where we belong and are integrally involved in assisting others is really important.

And, third, congregations understand they exist for the healing of the world through the love of God. As a friend of mine put it, “We are privileged to serve as Christians.”

I’ve been preaching in ABC life for the past couple of years that the church cannot live as a gated community. We have to be open to those who are pressed to the very margins of life, and it makes church life messy.

One of the challenges in our churches is to be willing to live with the messiness because Jesus still invites sinners to his table.

BT: Church and denominational leadership can be draining. How do you refuel your spiritual tank?

RM: I’m a member of a local congregation. They don’t see me a whole lot, but they’re still my primary community of faith. When I step into that sanctuary, it ministers to me in a very important and deep way.

They let me just be Roy, not General Secretary Medley. I’m a fellow follower of Jesus who is looking to be fed, looking to be challenged, and looking for direction just like anybody else coming that Sunday. So I’m very grateful to First Baptist Freehold (N.J.) for just letting me be a member.

I’ve also had a spiritual director during these years. I knew coming into this that we American Baptists, like every denomination, were going to run headlong into the issues of human sexuality, interfaith relations — all of those big questions.

I was running right toward them and couldn’t do that in my own strength. So I asked a friend to become my spiritual director. He asked why I had chosen him. I said because you lived through your young son having brain cancer. You navigated those very difficult waters, and I need somebody whose faith runs deep to help me.

He has been a wonderful gift during these years as we talk about the pressures that anyone who is in church leadership faces.

Scripture continues to confront me in ways I never anticipated. I’ve been in professional ministry for 40 years and have been in the life of the church since I was a kid. Yet these same scriptures come with new meaning and new insights.

I think about those early Baptists in England who said that there is more light to break forth from scripture. That’s been true in my life.

In ABC life we have an initiative called “Transformed by the Spirit.” We invite people, individually but hopefully in groups, to take up a scripture passage and reflect on it with one another. Our ABC leadership team spent one year reflecting every month we met on the same passage: Jesus’ sending of the 70 [from Luke 10].

Every month we would spend an hour on that passage, and each time something new would come out. So dwelling in the Word has been really important to me.

Then, just integrating into my life some new forms of prayer. There are times when my prayer is about pouring out before God. But learning to be still and listen for the voice of God has been an important part of my learning about prayer.

BT: Can you identify two or three memorable moments from your time as General Secretary that will always stay with you?

RM: One goes back to the question you asked about the future of the church. I was on a red-eye flight from Phoenix to Atlanta and, like every flight nowadays, it was packed. A young man, 20-something, took the middle seat beside me. I’d been working all weekend with churches in the Phoenix area and was worn out. Before the plane had gotten off the tarmac I was dozing.

But I was awakened more than once by this young man asking for a gin and tonic. After awhile he was pretty socially lubricated and became very talkative. He began to pour out his life to me — a stranger.

He said he was arrested for drug possession in Utah and was on his way back home to North Carolina. I think he said he was 23 years old.

“I can’t read,” he said. “I’ve got a learning disability and went all the way through school with so much shame about not being able to read.”

He said: I don’t have a job, my brother doesn’t have a job, and we’re just a couple of… He used an expression I can’t use in this interview.

A lot of the flight was spent with him talking like this, and then he turned the conversation and asked: “So what do you do?”

I said, “You don’t want to know.” He said, “It can’t be that bad.”

I said, “I’ll tell you if you promise not to freak out.” He asked, “What is it?”

I said, “Well, I’m a Baptist minister.” He said, “Oh my, it is that bad.”

Then what he said next cut me to the quick because he said to me: “I guess you’ve just been sitting there judging me all this time.”

To a person who knows mercy and is supposed to show mercy as a Christian, to have someone say their understanding of who you are is one who judges people when they pour out the brokenness of their lives — that was hard.

I said to him, “Son, I’ve not been judging you. My heart has been breaking for you.”

He said, “Well, what do you think, preacher?”

I said, “It’s not what I think; it’s what I know. What I know is that God loves you more than you can ever imagine and God wants to help get your life to a point where you can feel good about it.”

We talked for the rest of the way about faith, about Jesus. And at one point he said to me: “You don’t talk like any preacher I’ve ever talked to before.”

As the plane was beginning its final approach, he said: “I wish I weren’t so drunk. I’d like to talk some more.”

That really drew me up short in terms of how so many people see us, especially as Baptists, as people who just stand in judgment rather than people who have been in a mess ourselves and have found forgiveness and new life because Jesus speaks mercy and forgiveness to us. I’ll never forget that moment.

BT: That was memorable.

RM: On the other side of the scale, I’ll never forget being in Burma. I was the first American Baptist official to be able to go into the Chin Hills again. All of our missionaries were forced out in the ’60s, but [now] the church there is vibrant and strong and they still feel this real connection with us.

I was one of the first American Baptists [allowed] back into the Kachin Hills as the government released restrictions and allowed me to go there. The reception was incredible. At the airport in Myitkyina there were probably 3,000 people waiting to greet me.

As we went through the Kachin State and the Chin State later, in every village we would visit people would line the roads for literally miles before we would ever get to the village. They were there to greet us, to sing, to dance, to offer gifts and to welcome us.

At one point, we were going to a village and I asked the driver to stop. I wanted to walk among the people. As we started walking down this narrow, dirt road with people on both sides, people started coming up to me just wanting to touch my beard, wanting to touch my coat — any way they could make a connection back to American Baptists who sent these missionaries and had brought the Christian faith to them. It was an incredible experience.

Because of the conflict they’ve been in with the military, because of their being Christian and the military suppressing them, and the violence they’ve experienced, there was a lot of conversation about peace with justice. We met with the U.S. Ambassador, and with [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, and a number of government officials to talk about human rights violations and the importance of religious liberty in that setting.

As I was leaving Myitkyna, again a thousand people lined up. Women were holding out their babies for me to touch and to bless. Young children were holding signs saying, “Do not forget us. Remember your promise to pray for us.”

It was heartbreaking. [I] didn’t want to get on the plane.

BT: When was that?

RM: This past February. I’ve been to Burma several times, but only with the Judson 200 Celebration [in 2012] was I able to first go into the Chin State and then last February be allowed into the Kachin State and into the Southern Chin State where there has been some violence. So that reception was just incredible.

I mentioned earlier about Lebanon. My experience with the Baptist community in the Middle East — whether in Lebanon, or with the Association of Baptist Churches of Israel, or with Palestinian Baptists — has been transformative for me.

I have seen in them a commitment as Christians to be a bridge of peace between Jews and Muslims and to offer themselves in countless ways in the work for peace and justice in the Middle East against such great odds. These are very small communities.

You talk to the Palestinians and hear how their grandfather’s land was confiscated during the formation of Israel and how they lost everything, and yet their commitment is to love and to work for peace.

You talk to someone like Alia — a Lebanese Baptist — and hear how her father was captured and killed during the Lebanese Civil War by Muslim militia and of her starkly facing a decision as to whether she would live forever hating those who had done this to her family or whether she would live in love toward them as Jesus loved her. She is in the forefront of ministering to the refugees flooding into Lebanon now.

You see people who have been abused but will not let that be the final word in their lives, but the love of Jesus will be the final word in their relationships to others. First, it makes you ashamed; that’s the first response.

Then it becomes such an encouragement as to what the love of Christ can do in your own life. I would say those would be three experiences that have been transformative for me.

BT: What is ahead for you after you leave the leadership position that has taken up so much of your life?

RM: Family is ahead for me, and I look forward to that. When Pat and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, I said to her: “You know, it’s probably more like 15 years in actuality for the amount of time I’m on the road.”

You can’t lead and sit in Valley Forge. Like any good pastor, you have to be out and among your people — and in a denominational role you have to be out in the world as well. So I want to have more time with my family; that’s a big thing.

The Baptist World Alliance has asked me to head up a new commission on interfaith relations. That will allow me to continue to broaden interfaith relationships with Muslims.

Also, I have two years left with the National Council of Churches as past president, so I’ll continue as an officer as we work on two major issues. One is mass incarceration, and the second is peace building through interfaith relations. And I’ve been asked to write chapters in a couple of books, so I look forward to that.

Aidsand Wright-Riggins, our Home Mission Society director who just retired, said: “I look forward to not being a professional Christian.” He said he looked forward to engaging in the life of faith as one who will have more time to devote to the spiritual disciplines. I look forward to that too.

BT: Journalists are to disclose any pre-existing relationships. So this is the disclosure question: When I used to come to your house to borrow an encyclopedia or you came over to mine to stay with my brothers and me while my mother went somewhere, did you imagine we’d be doing this interview someday?

RM: It’s been amazing to see how two boys who grew up across the road from each other in Ringgold, Ga., how God has blessed us. It has been a real joy to me and, as we would have said, who’d have thunk it? BT

Story and Photos by John D. Pierce