It used to be heard everywhere, whether Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings, pastors’ conferences, evangelism rallies, training events, or other venues where Baptists gathered during the latter half of the twentieth century—“If you cut a Southern Baptist, he (or she) bleeds evangelism and missions.”
It was simply who we were as a people. It was hard-wired into our DNA. Whether “A Million More in 54” in the 1950s or “Bold Mission Thrust” in the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists’ collective heart’s desire was to win the world to faith in Jesus Christ in our generation—no matter the cost.
Presenting the Gospel and ministering to displaced persons, immigrants, and other downtrodden peoples, both internationally and in the United States, has been a significant piece of this evangelistic passion in the seven decades since World War II.
Expanding the Vision
When the SBC was organized in 1845, its primary purpose was “to promote Foreign and Domestic Missions, and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s kingdom” (SBC Constitution, 1845, Article II).
The following year (1846), the Convention established priorities to minister to Native American and African American populations with the Gospel. The Convention also adopted a resolution that addressed the “mighty tide” of “an emigrant population” that “should be regarded with solemn interest, as augmenting the responsibilities of the Southern churches.”
In highly stylized language, the resolution noted that “the condition and circumstances of such a population render them peculiarly susceptible of deep moral impressions” which “should be made by a holy, zealous, and intelligent ministry.”
Serving the Displaced
One hundred years later, the Convention encouraged the US government to admit “its fair share” of displaced persons from war-ravaged Europe, specifically asking Congress to admit four hundred thousand displaced persons over a four-year period (1947), and called on Congress two years later to remove “discriminatory clauses hampering the main purpose” of such legislation (1949).
Of note, the Convention’s 1949 resolution charged the government as follows: “Due care should be maintained in selecting individuals friendly to our form of government and likely to become good citizens.”
In the years since, Southern Baptists have continued to express compassion for displaced persons through the Convention’s resolution process (see sidebar).
Reaching the Nations among Us
For the past seventy years, Southern Baptists have celebrated in their annual Book of Reports ministry they have done to, for, and with refugees, displaced persons, and immigrant populations.
This ministry has been conducted through partnerships with churches too numerous to mention and in concert with almost every SBC entity or agency, including IMB, NAMB, LifeWay, ERLC, GuideStone, WMU, and the former Brotherhood, Stewardship, Education, Historical, and Radio and Television Commissions.
The SBC Executive Committee also helped set Bold Mission Thrust goals and recommended ministry assignment adjustments for SBC entities that pertain to this area of ministry.
Some of the immigrant populations that have been specifically referenced in the annual SBC Book of Reports for specialized ministry over the decades include refugees, displaced persons, and immigrants from scores of countries (see sidebar).
Currently, more than thirty immigrant, as well as Native American and African American, fellowships cooperate with the SBC across the United States. More than ten thousand of our fifty-one thousand congregations (churches and church-type missions) are non-Anglo. The Gospel is preached and the Lord is worshiped in more than one hundred languages on any given Sunday through Southern Baptist churches.
The Changing Face of America
Two resolutions on immigration over the past decade and two ministry assignment changes during the past five years illustrate Southern Baptists’ consistent perspectives on immigration.
As the number of illegal immigrants in the US increased during the opening decade of the twenty-first century, Southern Baptists responded by calling on the government to secure its borders from illegal immigration (resolutions adopted in 2006 and 2011) and to reduce the immigration crisis (2006).
The Convention’s messengers simultaneously called on churches and individuals to act redemptively to all immigrants, striving to meet their “physical, emotional, and spiritual needs” (2006) and seeking to “demonstrate the reconciliation of the Kingdom both in the verbal witness of our Gospel and in the visible make-up of our congregations” (2011).
Acknowledging that the nations have come to the United States, the Convention amended the ministry statements for the International Mission Board in 2011 and the North American Mission Board in 2015.
In 2011, messengers approved adding the italicized language below to IMB’s first ministry assignment: “Assist churches by evangelizing persons, planting Baptist churches, and nurturing church planting movements among all people groups outside the United States and Canada; and, provide specialized, defined and agreed upon assistance to the North American Mission Board in assisting churches to reach unreached and underserved people groups within the United States and Canada.”
Four years later, in 2015, the Convention approved reciprocal language to NAMB’s first ministry assignment—to “provide specialized, defined and agreed upon assistance to the International Mission Board in assisting churches to plant churches for specific groups outside the United States and Canada.”
To Seek and to Save
Reaching the nation—and the nations—with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the heart of who Southern Baptists are. Even as our Baptist forebears sought a place where they could experience and exercise religious liberty, free of governmental tyranny or oppressive restraint, Southern Baptists long for other “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to find refuge at the foot of the Cross, whether Iraqis in Michigan, Kurds, Sudanese, and Hispanics in Tennessee, Chinese in California, Cubans in Kentucky, or Syrians in Georgia and Texas and beyond.
Southern Baptists will minister in the Name of Jesus Christ even while calling on the government to secure our borders, enforce current immigration laws, deal compassionately but definitively with the current immigration crisis, and exercise “due care in selecting individuals friendly to our form of government and likely to become good citizens.”
As the Convention’s 2006 resolution stated, we will continue to “encourage all Southern Baptists to make the most of the tremendous opportunity for evangelism and join our Master on His mission to seek and save those who are lost among the immigrant populations to the end that these individuals might become . . . loyal citizens of the Kingdom of God,” even as they seek to become legal residents of this great nation.
Evangelism and missions: it’s still in the DNA of the SBC.
Following US disengagement from the Vietnam war, the SBC expressed concern for about one hundred thousand refugees under US care in refugee centers around the world. The resolution urged Southern Baptist churches and families to pray for them and to “aid in their resettlement throughout our country.”
The Convention called on churches to minister to migrant farm workers “in ways that reflect the love and concern” of our Lord.
The Convention called on churches to help Cuban refugees resettle in America, and in a separate resolution, sought to “do all within our power to affect public opinion in raising national and denominational consciousness as to the critical plight of the Cambodians,” encouraging churches to give sacrificially to their human needs and to minister to those who had immigrated to our country.
In a resolution, the Convention celebrated ten years of ministry during which more than twelve thousand Vietnamese and other Indo-Chinese immigrants had been helped by Southern Baptists, with 281 new churches planted among immigrants from those countries.
SBC messengers called on the US government to receive North Korean refugees fleeing the “brutal tyranny” of that country’s oppressive regime.
SBC messengers called on Southern Baptists to pray for the Lord to “turn the heart” of North Korea’s leaders to relieve the severe oppression and violation of human rights and religious liberty that grips that country.
Countries of origin mentioned specifically in annual SBC Book of Reports include the following:
- Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Austrian, Hungarian, and other Eastern Europeans prior to, during, and following World War II;
- Germans, Austrians, Italians, Chinese, and Filipinos during and following World War II;
- Koreans, beginning in the 1950s and since;
- Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and other Indo-Chinese groups beginning in the 1970s;
- Cubans, Panamanians, and Nicaraguans fleeing civil wars and Communist governments;
- Numerous ethnic groups affected by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia;
- Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe), Ghanaians, Burundians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalians, Ethiopians and other African peoples; and,
- More recently, Haitians, Kurds, Sudanese, and now Syrian refugees.
Ministries provided by SBC entities include:
- Raising awareness about the plight of numerous refugee populations, advocating for their protection overseas and/or admission into the United States with immigrant status;
- Offering services to meet basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter;
- Urging churches and families to aid in the resettlement process;
- Producing language resources;
- Helping associations and state conventions discover needs and develop plans for the relocation of refugees and immigrants; and
- Helping launch language-specific churches for a multitude of immigrant populations.
Roger S. Oldham is vice president for Convention communications and relations for the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee.