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What Does MMBB’s Centennial Mean? A speech by Sumner M. Grant

Speech of MMBB Executive Director Rev. Dr. Sumner M. Grant at the MMBB luncheon celebrating 100 years, taking place at the ABC Biennial in Puerto Rico, June 2011.

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It was May 17, 1967, I had just completed seminary and was on a search for my first solo pastorate. The place was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The occasion: the M&M Annual Member Luncheon. I was there with my good friend George H. Tooze who was associate pastor of the First Baptist Church of Beverly, Massachusetts, where I served as student assistant.

To me the air was electric. It was my first luncheon and it was clear that those in attendance expected a program that was out of the ordinary. I’ve since learned that such expectations have been the rule across the years—with one possible exception: the address of yours truly.

But I digress. The keynote in 1967 was delivered by Dr. Carlyle Marney, former pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He left the church to found Interpreter’s House, an ecumenical study center for clergy and laity. Marney did not disappoint. His address: “The New Breed’s Man” challenged us to throw off the old humanity to make room for what he called “original salvation” to counter “original sin” in order that we might become new creations.

But as powerful as was Marney’s address—as rich in illustrative material and provocative thought—it was not that which moved me. It was 1,500 voices raised in doxology. All creatures here below joining the heavenly host in thanksgiving for our majestic and benevolent God from whom all blessings flow.

For in that moment—in that great room—there flashed before me the image of my late father, a country preacher who had died prematurely leaving me, my mom and four siblings in the care of this great organization which was my host. It is a moment I will never forget—an emotion filled—yes tearful—voice lifted in thanksgiving for a life and family doubly blessed.

Never does the singing of the doxology at the MMBB luncheon pass from me without a flashback to my first luncheon now 44 years ago. How meaningful then for me to hear the doxology to the tune of Old One Hundredth sung on the 100th Anniversary of MMBB by the Glee Club from the school which bears the name of a MMBB’s visionary founder, Henry L. Morehouse. I hope that many of you were similarly moved as we recalled in hymn our gratitude for the blessings which have accrued to us because of this wonderful organization. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

I’ve been given the task of painting for you a picture of MMBB’s future. Why then would I begin my remarks by looking back?—and by being a bit self-indulgent at that? Why not anchor my remarks in the present and offer to give you a grand vision of what MMBB will be 20 years from now? Well, for one thing, to do so would be the height of presumptuousness. How can anyone presume to know the future when we all see through the glass but darkly? For another, MMBB has always been a dynamic organization, in tune to the business environment, sensitive to members’ concerns, aware of market movement and open to best practices in governance and administration. Gathering all this information and more we have lived with the sober realization that MMBB is a living, breathing organism on a journey—an organism that must adapt and change to meet the new and emerging challenges of the 21st century. Third, there is wisdom in looking back to find those values which have shaped us in the past—enduring values that will carry us into the future—values we will never abandon lest we become something we should not.

Our African brothers and sisters have a word for this concept: “Sankofa.” This concept is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Africa. Sankofa is expressed in the Akan language as: “se wo were fi na wasan kofa a yenki.” Literally translated it means: “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we embrace the future.

I believe that’s the same concept Paul Tillich was advancing in one of his lectures on the Kingdom of God when he said: “there is no way forward but to take on your back that precious packet of all that has a endured—take it on your back and strike out boldly for new ground that will support an altar for Christ!”

As MMBB looks to the future what should we fetch that we have forgot? What precious packet of all that has endured will we carry on our backs as we move forward?

As I open the packet I see a host of things, but there are three that stand out for me.

The first is generosity.

Many of you remember the dramatic story of the founding of our ministry. A generous man who wished to remain anonymous pledged $50,000 at the annual Northern Baptist Convention as it met in Philadelphia in 1911. But there was a condition attached. The money would only be released if by noon on Christmas Day $200,000 more would be secured. Henry Morehouse, MMBB’s visionary founder, accepted the challenge on behalf of the convention. Enlisting the help of Everett Tomlinson, who was to become an MMBB’s first executive director, there began a fevered effort to raise the requested amount. You recall, as well, that as the clock struck 12 noon on Christmas it was still not clear that the $200,000 had been secured. But at that moment an envelope was opened with a letter from John D. Rockefeller Sr. In it was his promise to give as much as needed up to $40,000 to complete the goal. The campaign was a success.

But there was a little-known back story, which has always grabbed me for it takes generosity to a new level. Henry Morehouse was a man of very modest means. For over three decades he had been agitating the Northern Baptists to initiate a ministry to care for ministers and their families. He knew of their plight. He had been a frontier preacher himself. Speaking to Long Island Baptists in 1892, he thundered: “Do you know of those today on western fields with meager salaries refusing larger offers elsewhere to whom boxes of misfit garments from the east are welcome? Oh that they would be properly paid and live comfortably and dress decently and this old clothes business for ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ could be forever and utterly abolished!”

Now imagine his disappointment in 1911 when it appeared as though his best chance to realize his three decade dream was held in the balance. In late November it was obvious to most that the $200,000 would not be raised. There was a gap of around $100,000. A lesser man would have hung his head in despair and quit. But Morehouse on December 7, 18 days before the deadline, wrote a letter to the Board in which he said: “So critical is the situation that I am constrained to devote a major part of all I possess toward the attainment of this object. I will pledge $10,000 or so much thereof as shall be necessary, if others in large measure will unite with me in underwriting the last $100,000.”

Now we can talk about the Rockefellers. We can talk about the generous gift of the man from Pennsylvania. But it was this selfless act of generosity—born out of passion and commitment—that was largely responsible for the birth of MMBB. And this act, deep in MMBB’s DNA, has coursed through the veins of this organization for over a century—and it will in the future.

How else can we explain the educational grants we make to the children of the widowed and disabled? The gifts we make to support the objectives of the American Baptist churches? The annual visits to eligible retired members? The premium aid we offer to members who have lost their jobs? The strategic premium assistance we provide to those in promising new ministries? The scholarships to broken pastors in need of career counseling? The money for continuing education we provide for regional executive ministers? The luncheons for those retired? Thank You Checks for the lay retired? Emergency assistance to those experiencing hardship? Medical premium subsidies? Financial planning?

Generosity is in MMBB’s DNA. It will be a value which we will carry into the future.

A second enduring value is a commitment to justice.

When the struggle for civil rights was being waged in the 60s a number of pastors who stood on the side of justice risked losing their jobs—and yes, their lives. On July 4, 1963 the general secretary of the American Baptist Churches along with the executives of the boards and societies signed and sent a call to action to the churches.

Later that summer many on the MMBB staff joined the thousands of others in the “March on Washington” where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his moving and historic speech “I Have a Dream.” But still, then executive director Dean Wright was troubled over the plight of pastors at risk. So the Reverend William T. McKee, who had been appointed that summer as the first African-American executive staff member, was dispatched to work with regional executive ministers in extending a hand to pastors who found themselves in difficulty. Shortly thereafter Dean Wright sent a pastoral letter to all ABC clergy in which he said in part:

“Many of us on national staffs are spared the hardest experience, because there is no controversy in our immediate fellowship about the basic issue of racial justice. But I know that the simplest reaffirmation of our Convention’s repeated position on civil rights in some churches causes serious tension and conflict. Some of our pastors may be forced out, even as is already taking place in the South. Will you write to me if there is anything you feel M&M can do to help you if you are under serious pressure. The M&M Board stands ready to be of help to you in any way possible.”

MMBB’s commitment to justice was two-pronged: first, an expression of solidarity with those struggling for freedom. Second, a passionate resolve to stand with pastors whose convictions placed them and their families at risk.

In the ensuing decades this commitment has continued as MMBB has been active in efforts in support of gender, racial and sexual equality within the American Baptist Churches. It has been seen recently in our efforts to extend our benefits and services to all who are eligible. But there have been detractors.

There have been those who have wished that MMBB would withhold benefits from those who disagree with them theologically—or those whose understanding of human sexuality they regard as sinful. As MMBB moves into the future we will always stand on the side of justice. The right to have protection for self and family in the event of an untimely death or disability and the opportunity to build assets for a dignified retirement is a justice issue. It is in our DNA coursing through our veins as surely as the heart pumps blood through your body and mine. We will never be deterred.

Which leads me to the third value we have fetched from our past—a passion for those who are without.

In 1940, then executive director Forrest Ashbrooke was alarmed that only 38% of eligible pastors were members of the plan. Annual grants for ministers who, because of age or lack of financial resources, had been in the Fund was only $225 per year. That was but one-third of the annual compensation of pastors when MMBB was founded 30 years earlier!—a mere pittance for those who had devoted their lives to the cause of Jesus Christ!

So in 1941 at the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention the “Retiring Pension Fund Crusade” was launched. The goal was “every church paying its share of its pastors’ dues by 1943. The slogan: “Worry Free by 43.”

A National Sponsoring Committee was set up with C. Oscar Johnson, pastor of Third Baptist Church of St. Louis as chair. Serving with Johnson were pastors and laity from every part of the convention.

There were skeptics. One denominational leader said: “You’ll never get churches in my state to pay 7½ percent of compensation in support of pastors’ pensions.” He proved to be a very poor prophet. Within a few years every church in that particular state was contributing. Indeed, at the end of the campaign 95% of eligible pastors were enrolled in the fund.

Ashbrooke’s passion for the unserved and underserved recalled in a dramatic and substantive way the spirit of Henry Morehouse. For, he devoted the latter years of his life to the evangelistic pursuit of those without financial protection.

Six decades later MMBB is reclaiming the spirit of Morehouse and Ashbrooke. After several decades of focus only on the “maintenance” of the ministry, we have reclaimed our whole sense of purpose from our foundational documents. MMBB’s reason for being is: “to promote interest in the better maintenance of the ministry.” To promote is a call to action. It bids us to leave the safe confines of what is known to us and to passionately extend benefits and services to all who are eligible. To do anything less is to abrogate our missional call.

As I was preparing this message I was told of a young American Baptist pastor, 38 years of age, who died suddenly leaving a wife and three children. He was not a member of our plans. My heart went out to his family, deprived of the generous benefits we offer. This is a travesty—not only for the family—but that today in 2011 there would be any member of the ABC family whose church did not value its pastors’ life enough to provide for him and his family necessary protection.

Two years ago one of our staff members was introducing our benefits to a pastors’ gathering in South Carolina. Sitting off to the side was a young man in a wheelchair, obviously engaged in the presentation. As our staff member concluded, it was clear he wanted to speak. Wheeling to the front he said to his colleagues: “Two years ago I was in my car driving my wife to the hospital. She was pregnant and ready to deliver our second child. As we approached the intersection a speeding car drove through a stop sign. I’m now a paraplegic. I wish I had heard this presentation three years ago. For me it’s too late.”

Too late? I cannot rest easy until all eligible within our reach had been extended an invitation to participate in the benefits and services we offer. We cannot be too late for those who might be disabled at the hand of a speeding driver. We cannot be too late for the struggling pastor who at retirement age will have no visible means of support. We cannot be too late for the one ostracized by church and denomination for life choices who has no financial security. We cannot be too late for a family where the hand of death has reached in and plucked from the circle the mother in the twinkling of an eye. We cannot be too late for our sisters and brothers in other denominations who have not been blessed with the same benefits and services that we have. We cannot be too late!

Generosity—justice—passion for those without—enduring values fetched from the past that will continue to shape MMBB’s future. Sankofa: “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

Visually and symbolically Sankofa is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth.

As I reflect on that symbol, in my mind’s eye, I can see the egg. And I’m struck with this thought. The egg contains the genetic imprint—the DNA—from its creation—an imprint that reaches back millions of years—and will carry its imprint into the future. And I am reminded of MMBB’s DNA—the great cloud of witnesses—some named—many unnamed—who surround us on this our 100th birthday—and will surround MMBB in the future—the heavenly train—and I praise God—Doxology—from whom all blessings flow!