Mega-author John Grisham, whose recent novels have revealed his deeply rooted Christian faith, will deliver a rare public speech at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in late January.
Grisham, a member of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va., joins an all-star lineup of Baptists who will address the three-day meeting in Atlanta, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and Republican senators Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Charles Grassley (Iowa).
“The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” organized by Carter, will seek to unite an estimated 20 million Baptists Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 around an agenda of Christ-centered social ministry. Forty Baptist organizations in the United States and Canada are participating, including the four main black Baptist conventions and most of the other Baptist denominations except the Southern Baptist Convention.
The 53-year-old Grisham, a lifelong Baptist, has taught Sunday school to young couples and 4-year-olds and regularly goes with fellow church members on mission-service trips.
In announcing the addition of Grisham to the Covenant lineup Dec. 20, program co-chair Jimmy Allen described the author as “a Baptist churchman, not only in regular worship but also in active service. The subthemes of his fiction reveal his understanding of the plight of the poor, his commitment to seek justice in our criminal system, his concerns for environment, and his descriptions of the challenge to reach across the racial lines that divide us.”
Allen said the Baptist layman will speak Jan. 31, during the second evening session of the pan-Baptist meeting, on the topic of “Respecting Diversity.”
Grisham, a self-described “moderate Baptist” whose 21 books have sold more than 100 million copies, has said he probably wouldn’t even be a novelist if weren’t for a concern for social justice. As a young attorney in Mississippi, he said, he heard the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. He determined to write about the tragic consequences, leading to his first novel, A Time to Kill.
Since 1993, Grisham has made almost yearly mission trips with his church to Brazil. “We went down there for the purpose of constructing a church in this little town sort of in the outback,” he told USA Today. “And it was such a rewarding experience that I’ve done it several times since.”
Those experiences surface in his novel The Testament, in which the lead character, an attorney, goes to Brazil in search of a missionary who has inherited the bulk of a billionaire’s fortune.
Grisham was not available for comment Dec. 20. His pastor, Tom Leland, declined to discuss his most famous parishioner’s church involvement.
Although intensively private about his charity work, Grisham and his wife, Renee, have set up a charitable foundation that supports mostly Christian efforts, raised $8.8 million in grants for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and built six Little League baseball fields in his hometown of Oxford, Miss.
A member of the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990, Grisham is a longtime Democrat who frequently donates to Democratic candidates and recently hosted a fundraiser for Hilary Clinton.
Although the New Baptist Covenant meeting will occur in the heat of the presidential-nomination season — and the lineup includes the famous husband of Democratic front-runner Clinton — Carter has said there is no political intention for the gathering. Instead Carter and co-organizer Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University, are seeking to unite Baptists around an agenda of ministry, inspired by Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4:18-19.
The themes of the sermon comprise the core of a statement drafted in April 2006 by Carter and other Baptist leaders. The statement commits the Covenant group “to promote peace with justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.”
Those same themes will provide the framework for the gathering’s plenary sessions, Carter said.
Republican Grassley and Democrat Bill Clinton will speak the evening of Friday, Feb. 1. South Carolina Senator Graham, a Republican who served on the Clinton impeachment panel, will speak Thursday morning. Nobel Prize winner Gore will deliver his presentation on global warming during a luncheon Thursday.
Grisham, the latest addition, fills a keynote slot vacated by commentator Bill Moyers, who withdrew because of a schedule conflict.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor and governor of Arkansas, was originally announced as a speaker but withdrew four days later to protest Carter’s characterization of President Bush’s administration as “the worst in history.”
Joining Grisham and the politicians as keynote speakers are sociologist and activist Tony Campolo, seminary professor Joel Gregory, African-Americans pastors Charles Adams and William Shaw, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, and Atlanta-area pastor Julie Pennington-Russell.