The Light Was Worth the Candle: 

Reflections on Four Years in the Life of the Alliance of Baptists

By Michael-Ray Mathews

The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part. – Proverbs 20:27

Twenty years ago this month, I was probably purchasing a ticket to Raleigh/Durham to attend the “annual convocation” of the Alliance of Baptists in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you told me that I would sound the call to create an Alliance community focused on racial justice ten years later, I would believe you. That sounds like me then—the hopeful organizer. But if you told me that twenty years later I would be concluding my second and final term as president of the Alliance, I might have been tempted to cancel the ticket.

Why would I subject myself to the emotional labor of leading a historically and predominantly white institution? Why would I dare focus that leadership on a more radical embodiment of our commitment to racial justice and antiracism? While the experience may not be as abusive as the recent SCOTUS Senate hearings, those inevitable moments of pause, tears, deep breathing, and forced diplomacy could indeed “steal my joy.”

No doubt. These four years have been emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Yet, I find myself brimming with gratitude for this journey with the Alliance of Baptists—both the past four years of serving as your president and the past two decades of being a member of this community. 

Lyrics by my favorite blues singer and songwriter Eric Bibb, come to mind:

…the light was worth the candle1

The warmth was worth the cold

The conversation worth the wine

And what I’ve learned has been worth growing old

If I leave this world tomorrow

Happily I can say

The light was worth the candle

At the end of the day

We burned a lot of candles in these four years. Sometimes at both ends. Even before COVID, we were facing a society on edge, with political polarization and economic inequity rising. And in the midst of that reality, the Alliance Board made a bold decision to center the work of racial justice and the embodiment of antiracism. This organizational intention and aspiration contexted the invitation to become president.

The Board began to live into this commitment, immersing itself in a season of discovery and training in antiracism. In the fall of 2018, the Board participated in a collective experience of antiracism training with Crossroads. This experience gave us language, frames, and containers to hold our analysis, ideas, and strategy. At the 2019 annual gathering in Washington, DC, we set out to commission a task group, led by Malu Fairley-Collins and April Baker, to articulate a set of recommendations focused on values, practices, and policies that would support the antiracist vision of the Alliance.

My creative energy and vision for the work of the Racial Justice Task Group (RJTG) were deepened by my participation with Samantha Marvel, David Gooch, and Paula Dempsey in the annual meeting of our sibling organization, the Aliança de Batistas do Brasil in the fall of 2019. The youth-led gathering focused on the theme Nada Por Nós Sem Nós (Nothing For Us Without Us) and centered on the voices of Afro-Brazilians, LGBTQ, and women. The vision for what became the 2021 annual gathering emerged amid the worship and fellowship among our kindred in Brazil. I returned to the U.S., ready to support the work of the RJTG.

We were knee-deep in this work and just about ready to review over 100 recommendations generated by the RJTG when COVID hit. The cancellation of the 2020 annual gathering meant that we would not have a forum to engage these recommendations as a gathered community. Instead, like every faith community, we focused our attention on the immediate crisis that COVID presented. I am so proud of Alliance staff and leaders, and I am grateful for the ways we were able to invest in the support of clergy and chaplains in the early season of the pandemic.  

And when we lost Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we found ways to hold space for our grief and anger and a deeper awareness of how their deaths are connected to our aspirations for racial justice and antiracism. (Don’t forget that we formed the Racial Justice Community in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.) As the larger world seemed to awaken to the insidious reality of white supremacy in our history, culture, and institutions, we were also awakening to how our antiracist commitments would inform every aspect of our life together. We began to ask, “how then shall we live?”

This made the invitation to partner with Davidson College in an application to the Lilly Endowment a timely one. Our collaboration in what became the THRIVE initiative has allowed the Alliance to support congregations committed to threading an antiracist vision into the whole life of congregations and communities. Our commitment to antiracism would not be limited to the inner workings of the Alliance as an institution but could also be explored by many congregations that are part of the Alliance.  

Our first virtual annual gathering in 2021 (AG21) was a huge success. A significant factor in this was the dedicated team of Alliance leaders and staff who planned, re-planned, and executed the vision and experience. I am grateful for the partnership between Colin Holtz, Ezra Fairley-Collins, Amy Canosa, Tammerie Day, Cristina Garcia-Alfonso, Stephanie Cooper, Brooklyn Lovelace, Zachary Helton, Darrell Hamilton, Lauren Colwell, Lin Story-Bruce, Micah Bucey, Jana Dye, and many other staff and volunteers.

AG21 was deeply informed by the journey of the Alliance over the past decade, our deepening commitment to racial justice and antiracism, and the lessons we are all learning in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Even though we could not gather and engage in this work face-to-face, we were deeply connected by the experience. We celebrated the adoption of a new covenant and amendments to our by-laws to better reflect our commitments to antiracism and the reality of digital decision-making. And we were educated, challenged, and encouraged by the prophetic and pastoral voices of Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Aurelia Davila Pratt, and Robert P. Jones.

This past year, while still profoundly shaped by the ongoing pandemic, has signaled a new season within the Alliance. After more than a decade of leadership, our co-director Paula Dempsey announced her retirement. We spent the summer and fall celebrating her bold leadership, prophetic vision, and tenacious love. And then we welcomed Elijah Zehyoue as co-director, whose passion for justice, coupled with Carole Collins’s commitment and love for people, will strengthen our capacity to live into our deepest aspirations together. 

Shortly, we will elect a new slate of officers. I will continue to support the executive committee as the immediate past president. But I must give special thanks to the executive committee members over the past four years. Thank you to officers Alan Burton, Mike Castle, Malu Fairley-Collins, Lisa Dunson, Nancy Flippin, Cathy Tamsberg, and our co-directors, Paula, Carole, and Elijah. Your commitment to multiple meetings, exhaustive review and discovery, and deep spiritual practice during a pandemic has held us together in ways that few will ever know.

The spiritual journey of the Alliance of Baptists continues. The struggle for peace and justice continues. We must keep the candle of our faith burning.  In the words of Eric Bibb, we must “keep [our] feet on the ground, and hold on to [our] soul.” May the Holy Spirit keep the prophetic flame of the Alliance of Baptists burning.

Ase.

 1Eric Bibb.  Painting Signs.  EarthBeat!, 2001. CD.

Michael-Ray Mathews has served as President of the Board of the Alliance of Baptists for the past four years and will end his term at the end of April. He is Deputy Executive Director & Chief Faith Officer at Faith in Action, host of Prophetic Resistance podcast, and inaugural member of the Auburn Senior Fellows program. Founded by Auburn Seminary, the program equips and gives a platform to top faith leaders on the frontlines for justice.

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