By John Armistead
In spite of the fact that official conversations between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church are coming to a end, a few individual ministers of both denominations will continue to develop working relations with each other. The Rev. Steve Pawelk, pastor of two Catholic churches, St. Francis of Assisi in New Albany and St. Christopher in Ponotoc, has enjoyed being able to serve along side Baptist pastors in community ministries.
"You can't lump all Southern Baptists together," he said. "There are those who work with the Catholic Church and those who choose not to have a relationship with the Catholic Church."
Relationships between the two denominations, the two largest Christian bodies in the United States, have always been uneasy. Dialogues, now called "conversations," between the two began in 1971 with leaders and scholars of both groups meeting together, usually once a year, for in-depth discussion of theological, biblical, and pastoral issues. The Baptists have recently informed the Catholics that, after the next two scheduled meetings, they no longer wish to continue with the talks.
No matter what is done on a national level, Pawelk will continue to reach out to Baptist colleagues.
A sense of fellowship
"In New Albany, we have had special services with Pleasant Hill Baptist Church where Les Jones is pastor, and we both work with Samaritan Services," Pawelk said.
"And obviously, Marvin Cox (director of mission for the Union County Baptist Association) has a long history of working with Catholics, working with the ministerial association, and supporting the Good Samaritan Services of Union County, and the literacy project."
Pawelk also cites the good working relationships he has with Southern Baptist pastors in Pontotoc.
"Both the pastors of West Heights Baptist Church and First Baptist participate in the ministerial association, and we've worked together on Habitat for Humanity," he said. "In fact, we had a group of Catholics come in for Habitat and they stayed at First Baptist's rectory."
Pawelk has especially enjoyed his relationship with the Rev. Ken Hester, pastor of First Baptist.
"He's a breath of fresh air," Pawelk said. "Ken is very open to working with Catholics."
Pawelk has on occasion run into Baptists who were difficult to work with.
"The biggest problem to me when working with Southern Baptists is when they don't see me as a Christian," he said. "There are those who look at Catholics with suspicion and are not convinced that we really know Jesus Christ, but I think that's a minority opinion."
The Rev. Les Jones, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Union County is one of those Pawelk has worked with closely.
"I enjoy any opportunities I have to work with Catholics, and Steve Pawelk is a genuine leader in our ministerial alliance," he said. "He has done more than anyone in the community regardless of denomination to do things for others."
Jones was not surprised at the recent decision of Southern Baptist Convention leaders to terminate talks with Catholics.
"There have always been Baptists who were close-minded about working with other denominations," he said. "And I think this (decision) is a continuation of the ultra conservative direction that Southern Baptists have been going in since 1979."
The Rev. Lynn Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church of Booneville, is another Baptist minister who enjoys working with Catholics.
"We have a good relationship with the Catholic church here in Booneville, St. Francis of Assisi," he said. "Sister Dorothy Pashuta is the minister, and I count her as a friend. We serve together as volunteer chaplains at the hospital here in town."
Jones feels conversation between Baptists and Catholics are constructive. "We represent such large constituencies in our country, so the more dialogue we have, the better," he said.
"I see it as a healthy avenue of building bridges of understanding even though we don't see things exactly alike theologically or biblically. It helps to appreciate one another."
Jones does not agree with the decision to break off talks with the Catholics.
"I think some Southern Baptist leaders are afraid that continued dialogue will be perceived as a step toward compromising Baptist distinctives," he said.
"I don't see it that way at all. We ought to talk and build understanding. To be fearful is a step backward."
Failing to respect each other
Baptist ministers, however, who are willing to work with Catholics are few in number in the experience of the Rev. Henry Shelton.
"My experience (with Southern Baptists) has not been good," said Shelton, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo and a native Mississippian. "In my 30 years of ministry in Mississippi, the denominations that are very eager to work with Catholics are United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterian (USA), and Lutheran (ELCA). Those are the ones in which I have found a willingness and an eagerness to work together."
Pastors from these churches are always present at ministerial association meetings, according to Shelton.
"But the Baptists consistently are absent from ecumenical ministerial meetings in the communities I've served in," said Shelton. "Bill Smith (director of missions for the Lee County Baptist Association) is an exception. He's always present."
Shelton wishes things were otherwise. "I really regret that absence of interacting with Southern Baptists," he said. "But its the fundamentalist churches who are so quick to say Catholics aren't saved and who target our kids, and, in some instances, put them at odds with their parents. You can admire their enthusiasm in evangelism, but let's have some respect for each other's traditions."
Points of agreement
The Rev. William P. "Bill" Smith III has made it a point to interact with ministers of other denominations during his almost two decades with the Lee County Baptist Association.
Smith points out that Catholics and Baptists are alike in many ways.
"We believe that the spiritual goal of loving God is achieved through a believing relationship with Jesus," he said. "We agree that we should love each other because love comes from God, therefore, if God loved us, we ought to love each other."
Smith says Catholics and Baptists also agree regarding the dangers of secularism, ethical relativism, and in opposing abortion and homosexuality.
"Baptists and Catholics should accept from each other the best that each has to offer," he said. "Regardless of different points of doctrine, Southern Baptists' basic belief is that all who personally trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are a part of the kingdom of God."