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For Baptist pastor, success is a result of inclusion

After 10 years, John Baker has led First Baptist Church with an eye on the broader context of faith.
Saturday, December 8, 2007 | 7:51 p.m. CST; updated 11:39 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — John Baker has more than a dozen sheep in his office. Most sit atop a single bookshelf and are white, fluffy and stuffed. There are also some ceramic figures and, inevitably, a lone black sheep.

Baker insists he is not a collector by nature. The sheep are the result of a thoughtful initiative by his secretary, Sandy Greenlee. But the collection seems fitting. Baker has been a shepherd, of sorts, to those who have flocked to Columbia’s First Baptist Church since he became its pastor in November 1997.

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In a year when the downtown congregation has had numerous reasons to celebrate — 2007 marks the fellowship’s 184th birthday as well as its 50th year of worshipping in its sanctuary on Broadway ­— Baker’s milestone year might best signify where the historic church has been and where it is going.

In his Nov. 25 sermon, given as part of the church’s birthday festivities, Baker identified a progression guided by “forward-looking principles” that have marked First Baptist’s history. In private, Baker, who turns 52 next month, speaks appreciatively of how the church has dealt with issues of race, class and gender. When Baker and others reflect on his ministry and how the church has pursued social justice and a sense of community over the last decade, it is clear that his work has been consistent with the church’s heritage.

“All of that falls right in line with our trajectory of being open-minded, open-hearted and, I think, true followers of the Gospel of Christ,” he said. “It just gets richer and broader as the time goes by.”

When some think of qualifications for a pastor, the ability to deliver a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon might come to mind. The committee that found Baker 10 years ago, then pastor at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, and recommended him to the congregation acknowledged the minister’s ability to convey a message. But Randy Wyatt, a committee member and lifelong member of First Baptist, said they were more impressed by Baker’s “ecumenical skills.”

“The real issue was his understanding of world events and world harmony, and the ability to be able to bond with folks of all different religions and backgrounds,” Wyatt said.

Baker’s ability to bond with those from different traditions is seen in the local and global relationships the church has formed. First Baptist is a “sister church” to Peace Cathedral Baptist Church in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and Baker said he has “given much of myself” to that area, traveling there numerous times to teach theology and the New Testament at a seminary.

While in Columbia, Baker has cultivated a friendship with Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom. Feintuch said their ties go beyond what the two men have in common as ministers. The relationship has spilled over into regular fellowship between their congregations. The two churches have shared meals, including First Baptist’s sponsorship of the last meal before the fast of Yom Kippur. Feintuch has also led a model Seder at First Baptist. And at Baker’s suggestion, members of both congregations viewed “The Passion of the Christ” so those at Beth Shalom would be among friends when viewing material some had deemed anti-Semitic.

Most significantly, perhaps, First Baptist has allowed Congregation Beth Shalom to hold their High Holy Days in the Baptist church.

“He would continually relay back to me how important it was for him and for his church to invite us,” Feintuch said.

When Baker lists some of the more significant events during his tenure, he mentions several processes that have more clearly defined the identity and mission of First Baptist Church. In 2000, the church elected a committee of lay people to study Baptist principles and heritage. The process led to the church ending its partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention and aligning itself with American Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Baker said the committee decided “many things that were happening in Southern Baptist life ... didn’t reflect what they felt were the ways that Baptists were to do things.”

The church has also sought to diversify, adding a second, more contemporary worship service and have made efforts to, as Baker said, “publicly and intentionally” become a more inclusive body.

“We want to minister to all persons, and we underline the word ‘all,’” he said. “There’s no one that is not welcome and there’s no one whose gifts cannot be used in service here, and that’s very important for us and very important for me as a Christian leader. If that were not the case, I would be very frustrated.”

For Baker, serving is a family affair. His wife of almost 23 years, Judy Baker, is a Democratic state representative, who recently revealed she is exploring a Congressional bid in 2008. She referred to herself as “somewhat of an unconventional pastor’s wife, but nonetheless, I’m a pastor’s wife, I think, for this day.”

Serving the city in different capacities is an expression of the couple’s values, she said.

“We have a philosophy of majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors,” she said. “And the major things for us are church and family and, within those, growing as individuals in love and compassion and service. Both of us have wanted to model that for our children and our community.”

The Bakers have served in several different churches across the United States. But Judy Baker said their experience at First Baptist has been distinct because of the members’ willingness to work hard and engage the community.

“This church, while we’ve been here, has done some courageous and meaningful things for the community and has taken on that burden with love and compassion for every person who’s walked through our doors,” she said. “It’s been a delight to work with a group of people who have that unifying spirit. Their pledge, and they say it every time we have Communion, is to have unity without uniformity.”

John Baker’s tenure and his success in forging relationships seems to be because of interpersonal skills identified by those who know him well. Wyatt spoke of Baker’s ability to understand his congregation and to identify with the people’s lives and concerns.

Otto Steinhaus, co-chair of the Faith and Education Collaborative, said Baker is open and tolerant and has a deep concern for the marginalized and the poor. “I just see him as a person who is really concerned about people and is willing to risk his support for the marginalized,” Steinhaus said.

As Baker begins his 11th year as First Baptist’s spiritual leader, he is likely to continue making decisions based on an attitude that his wife said he exhibits daily.

“He gets up every day thinking, ‘What can I do today to make a difference?’” Judy Baker said. “And, when someone has that kind of attitude, by golly, they make a difference.”


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