David Gushee gave his life to Jesus in a Southern Baptist church when he was a teen.
Providence Baptist Church in Vienna, Va., had offered him a clear evangelistic testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ and discipled him into the ways of Southern Baptist life, which included reading the Bible daily, sharing his faith and learning the strict codes of personal morality.
Gushee refers to the church as "the Billy Graham version" of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It emphasized a disciplined devotional life, ministry and mission but beyond that, Gushee learned love and grace from the Providence Baptist community and was never judged or condemned. Moreover, politics was never mentioned at the Vienna church.
"This church knew who they were and what they believed, but they weren't angry about it," he said in a commentary on Associated Baptist Press.
Within a year of his conversion, Gushee experienced a call to ministry and is now 30 years into his journey as a Baptist.
But these Billy Graham version Baptist churches have fallen under the shadow of political, theological and racial divisions that have been splintering Baptist denominations for over a century.
This week, thousands of Baptists from across the North American continent feel they have a unique opportunity to bring back the unity Gushee had found at Providence Baptist.
Up to 20,000 Baptists from some of the country's largest Baptist groups – representing about 20 million believers – will meet in Atlanta beginning Wednesday to try to mend fractures and improve the Baptist image.
Spearheaded by former president Jimmy Carter, the New Baptist Covenant Celebration aims to bring together a wide diversity of Baptists to collaborate on social issues like fighting poverty and fulfilling their mission as Christians.
"I've seen the devastating and adverse affects there are in the Christian world because so many of us are in public disagreement with other groups on different matters. And this was part of the early Christian church problems that Paul and Peter had to address and it still persists now," Carter explained in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"But I think it is the most devastating, adverse element that prevents the effectiveness of the mission of the current church," he continued. "We hope to have a wide diversity of Baptists and talk about what has divided us in the past and how this has prevented us from fulfilling our commitment as Christians and also to provide some foundation to future common actions."
Largely absent from the three-day convocation in Atlanta, however, will be leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – who say the meeting has political overtones, citing the participation of former president Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.
They also raised suspicion about the date. The meeting occurs during the presidential election year and falls less than a week before Super Tuesday primaries.
Carter has said the convocation is not political. The meeting is two years in the making and the date was set before they knew about Super Tuesday, Carter told the Atlanta newspaper.
While Baptists attending this week's historic gathering do not know what will come of it, many hope to emerge with a more moderate Baptist image than that of their conservative Southern Baptist brethren. And even more are hoping for unity.
For Gushee – currently a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University – he just hopes to find at the convocation people who focus on the teachings of Jesus rather than their own theological traditions and those who are "looking to include many different kinds of Baptists as possible, rather than to exclude some who do not quite qualify for one reason or another."
The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant takes place at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Jan. 30-Feb. 1.