Washington, DC (BWA)--John Upton, who was elected president of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) during the Baptist World Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii, in July of last year, describes his first year in office as "a sacred journey."
"After spending time with some of our courageous leaders in Baptist life and hearing world leaders express their appreciation of the BWA, it makes one want to remind Baptists there is much for which to be thankful," Upton told the General Council of the BWA in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 8.
The BWA head was particularly touched by a visit he recently made to the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border shortly before the start of the BWA Annual Gathering in Kuala Lumpur. The camp houses between 40,000 and 50,000 displaced persons from Myanmar.
Upton was impressed by the dedication of Baptists in the camp and the resilience of the refugees. At least 20 Baptist churches have been planted inside that camp, along with the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School and College, which is headed by Saw Simon, recipient of the BWA Human Rights Award given at the Baptist World Congress in Melbourne, Australia, in 2000.
But despite the dedication and strength he saw, Upton said the eyes of the refugees, particularly those of youth and children, betrayed loss and sadness. He said what worries refugees the most is that they will be forgotten. "Do not forget them," he urged the General Council, the governing body of the BWA.
In the midst of the many struggles he encountered around the world, "I have found my spirit renewed and lifted by seeing the broader and substantial work many are doing," Upton stated.
Upton told General Council members that he used the opportunity on a visit in May with Traian Băsescu, the president of Romania, to advocate for greater religious freedom in the country, including for Baptist Christians. Romania, predominantly Romanian Orthodox, has more than 98,000 Baptist members, one of the largest in Europe, third behind Britain and Ukraine. Upton, along with Oti Bunaciu, president of the Baptist Union of Romania, presented a Bible to President Băsescu.
Upton warned the General Council, comprised chiefly of Baptist leaders from around the world, to guard against distraction. "We are distracted from seeing clearly the bigger mission," he said. "Less worthy agenda can capture our attention and drain passion and resources. It is essential that the main things remain the first things and that we give our best to those matters rather than the small and distracting."
More than 300 Baptist leaders and delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur from July 4-9 for the BWA Annual Gathering. The yearly meetings involve a number of BWA groups, including the General Council and the Executive Committee; executive sub-committees and divisional advisory committees; women's, men's, and youth departments; regional groupings; and commissions of the divisions of Freedom & Justice, and Mission, Evangelism & Theological Reflection, and others.
The 2012 Annual Gathering will be in Santiago, Chile, from July 2-7.