“There are a lot more of us out there than anybody knows, and we need to find more ways to stay connected, to instruct and encourage each other, sometimes to argue with each other, because it’s not just the world that refuses to listen—sometimes our churches refuse to listen as well.”
Ken is the longtime friend who wrote a preface about me in Blessed Are the Peacemakers which has many of these mini-biographies. Ken and I have shared board meetings, negotiations with insurgent leaders, peace conferences, and even a bed when our work demands we travel to spots in the world with meager resources. What I love most about him is his poet’s soul. He can do all the other stuff–organizing, speaking, writing, protesting–very well. But his poetry moves my heart. Each Christmas I wait to read his newest way of retelling an old story through his Advent/Christmas poem, and every year I am stunned by the fresh light that breaks forth.
The United States was mobilizing to go to war against Iraq to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq caught most of the peace movement off guard. No major demonstrations took place before the war even though there were months of military mobilization in the Gulf region prior to the onset of the bombing campaign. One exception was Baptists from across the United States who engaged in fasts to protest the rush to war. Then the Baptists had a large gathering in Washington, D.C. to pray for peace prior to the Congressional authorization for war. Baptists have not been known as a group for their peace witness in the United States, but Ken Sehested has been a key figure in organizing this unlikely group of religious peacemakers.
Sehested was a Southern Baptist in the tradition of Clarence Jordan and Will Campbell, people who took Jesus seriously about loving enemies and hungering and thirsting for justice. In 1983 some Southern Baptists and American Baptists (branches of Baptists who had split in the 19th Century over the issue of slavery) traveled together to the Soviet Union. They visited Soviet Baptists and make a combined witness against the Cold War and nuclear arms race. Following the joint trip some of these Baptist peacemakers decided in 1984 to form a grassroots peace group cutting across all the streams of the Baptist tradition. Ken Sehested offered to give up his job as editor of a journal about hunger to work full-time organizing the new peace network, including raising his own salary.
Sehested had heard about pockets of Baptist peacemakers in various places. He traveled around the U.S. meeting those groups and connecting them to each other. He heard about similar groups in Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Sehested liked to say, “There are a lot more of us out there than anybody knows, and we need to find more ways to stay connected, to instruct and encourage each other, sometimes to argue with each other, because it’s not just the world that refuses to listen—sometimes our churches refuse to listen as well.” Soon the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was born to empower Baptists for the work of making peace and doing justice.
Through his speaking, writing and countless conversations Sehested pulled the fellowship together. Some groups had existed already and quickly joined with their regional networks. Sehested encouraged Baptist activists who were feeling isolated to put out the call in their cities or states to find kindred spirits so they could come together for specific peace projects. The journal The Baptist Peacemaker became the communication link through which Sehested could keep the vision fresh and the stories of Baptist peace activists could be told, not only in North America but around the world.
He attended national conventions and conferences providing a BPFNA display and was met by people who had been active in their denominational life but never knew there were other Baptists passionate about peace. Sehested believed, “Social change does not happen in general; it always occurs in particular.” The implication of this was: “Particular change means change within the context of particular institutions, which means, if we’re to be effective in our work, we must tend to the details of particular institutions and communicate within the framework of particular cultures.” So he worked within the contexts of the various Baptist bodies, some of which differed widely in their theological approaches. Throughout he brought a challenge for how to bring peacemaking into the life, programs and mission of these Baptist organizations. Peace began to spread onto the agendas of more Baptist conventions and unions, presented and pressed onto those agendas by the growing grassroots network Sehested was organizing.
Sehested and the BPFNA also brought issues of justice for women into the lives of Baptist institutions. When Nicaraguan Baptists and Cuban Baptists ordained their first women pastors the BPFNA organized delegations of North American ordained women to attend.
Sehested led the way in forging projects to give shape to the movement. Banners were made so that the Baptist presence was made visible in peace marches in New York and Washington, D.C. Through over a century of mission work Baptists had spread around the world, so Sehested sparked the fellowship to connect along the previously existing relationship lines, but now with a new message. Friendship Tours were organized to the Soviet Union, to South Africa, to Liberia, to El Salvador and Nicaragua, to the Middle East, to Burma as well as to striking coal miners in southwest Virginia. Baptist peacemakers were discovered at key points of leadership in mediation efforts to end civil wars and in nonviolent struggles for political and social change. The peace work was even brought to the streets of U.S. cities in support of one of the BPFNA members, Carl Upchurch, and the movement to hold gang peace summits.
Sehested then developed the idea for an international Baptist peace conference that would connect grassroots activists and official denominational leaders to encourage greater peacemaking efforts. The first conference was held in Sweden in 1988 with a focus on East/West relationships. The second was held in Nicaragua in 1992 with a focus on the conflicts in the “Two-Thirds World” and the complicity of the larger powers in those conflicts. In all these gatherings new connections were made and new ideas for collaborative action emerged. Further conferences were held in Thailand in 1996, Australia in 2000 and Italy in 2009. These global connections have resulted in mediation efforts in northeast India and Burma. They have opened the doors for nonviolence and conflict transformation training programs in conflicted areas around the world. They have made peace a part of the Baptist agenda and witness for many branches of the Baptist worldwide family.
A key to Sehested’s effectiveness was his combination of vision, organizing skills, and personal commitment to action. He could articulate a particularly Baptist vision for peacemaking, rooted in the history of Baptist passions for liberty and human rights. He knew how to talk to people, then remember special skills, interests and resources that could be tapped into at just the right time. Sehested also put himself on the line. He prayed at the Nevada nuclear test site, demonstrated in the streets, was a nonviolent escort to Palestinian children stoned by Israeli settlers as the children tried to go to school. He traveled to Cuba when such visits by U.S. citizens were restricted, then sent the cash prize award from a peace award from American Baptists to support Baptist peacemakers in Cuba, in intentional violation of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Sehested traveled to Nagaland in northeast India to help initiate a peace process seeking to end a war started in the 1950s. He also taught Karen refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border.
During the build-up to the first Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, as the peace movement was stalled, Sehested quickly mobilized the network of Baptists throughout North America to fast for peace at least one day each week. He took the lead with a bread and water fast for the duration of the conflict. His personal example stirred others to action and to share the story.
In 2002 Sehested stepped down from directing the BPFNA. He and his wife Nancy Hastings Sehested, started the Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, NC. He has continued his writing, including poetry. He has also continued his direct peace action. Prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq he was with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Baghdad calling for a halt to the drive to war. He had earlier served with CPT in the West Bank of Palestine during on of the Israeli military incursions.
Through the connections of religious peace fellowships Sehested has gotten to know Rabia Harris, director of the Muslim Peace Fellowship. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the BPFNA and MPT carried out a number of joint projects, including conflict transformation training. Sehested and Harris co-edited Peace Primer: Quotes from Christian and Islamic Scripture and Tradition, a resource that has gone around the world and been reprinted several times.
In North America there are religious peace groups like Pax Christi for the Catholics and the American Friends Service Committee for the Quakers. Globally the Buddhists have organized the Fellowship of Engaged Buddhists. Sehested’s organizing work among the Baptists shows what is possible even for a religious community that hasn’t been know for its peace tradition. With Baptists being the largest Protestant group in the United States and not much of a peacemaking identity, Sehested liked to say, “What more valuable task could be done than organizing a largely unorganized constituency?” Peace is endorsed in every religion, but it takes an organizer to bring those religious values into fruition in a world of conflict. If Baptist peacemakers can be organized, any religious tradition can be.
But Sehested goes farther in his hopes and imagination. He puts forward the challenge: “Can you imagine this: One day, when the general public hears the word Baptist, they will think immediately of Gospel-inspired justice and peace work? Instead of associating the name with the follies of TV evangelists, wouldn’t it be nice if they thought: Oh, those are the folks who care for the poor . . . who resist racial discrimination . . . who speak out against gun barrel diplomacy . . . who care for the environment. . . ? Imagine that!” Ken Sehested’s work invites us to imagine that peacemaking and justice-doing transformation for all our religious communities.
Ken has a website “Prayer & Politiks” with his amazing reflections, poetry, liturgical material, and much more.